Chicago Cubs and a payout bring in the money

NEW YORK — Cheered by what it sees as signs of an advertising recovery, publisher-broadcaster Tribune Co. on Wednesday reported fourth-quarter 2003 profits up a hefty 75%. Increase was due in large part to a $100 million gain on the sale of its stake in the Golf Channel to Comcast and better-than-expected gains at its broadcasting and publishing divisions.

Chicago-based company, which owns 13 daily newspapers and 26 TV stations, also benefited from a $22 million insurance payout for service interruptions at its WPIX TV in Gotham after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Fourth-quarter operating revenues rose a mere 2.8% to $1.47 billion, though lower expenses at Tribune’s broadcast and entertainment groups helped boost operating cash flow by 10% to $458 million. Operating profits were up 11% vs. the year-ago period to $400 million.

At the company’s broadcasting and entertainment division, which includes its minority stake in the WB, revenues rose 4.1% for the quarter to $353 million. Full-year numbers were up 8.3% to $1.32 billion. Division was helped by the baseball playoff success of the wholly owned Chicago Cubs. Company said it will receive “significant” rights-fee increases for Cubs games that air on the new regional sports network owned by Comcast.

The newspaper group, which includes the Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times, had a tougher run, with revenues up just 2% to $1.08 billion, though profits jumped a healthy 8% compared to last year’s $2.6 million.

Tribune recorded a full-year net profit of $891.4 million for 2003, more than double last year’s $443 million bottom line. Sales were up a more modest 4% to $5.6 billion.

Company predicts sales for 2004 will grow about 6%, though operating expenses are growing nearly as quickly at 5.5% this year due to personnel and newsprint costs as well as launch costs for new publications.

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