Broadcaster settles with majority of debt holders

Broadcaster Ion Television has come to terms with a majority of its debt holders, and that’s good news for Hollywood’s majors.

Ion, the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based company formerly known as Paxson Communications, has been spending money in the past two years on off-network rights to primetime skeins including “Boston Legal,” “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS” and “Ghost Whisperer,” but its long-term health had been threatened by a heavy $2.7 billion debt racked up years ago by the previous ownership regime.

Now, Ion has filed for Chapter 11 protection and cut a deal with its top debt holders that calls for Ion to “extinguish all of its indebtedness,” according to the company, by swapping that debt for equity in the company. That deal means Ion’s previous equity owners, Chicago-based investment firm Citadel and NBC Universal, will see their stakes wiped out while the debt holders become Ion’s new owners.

NBC U took a $55 million writedown on its Ion investment last month. A rep for Citadel declined comment Friday.

Ion will continue operations with $300 million in funding provided by the debt holders (who were not disclosed in Ion’s press release about the bankruptcy filing). As it completes its debt restructuring, the company will receive $150 million in immediate funding and, down the road, it will have access to another $150 million in a credit facility. Ion said the debt-for-equity deal already in place would help expedite the bankruptcy, filed last week in New York.

Ion chairman-CEO Brandon Burgess will remain the company’s topper, and the business plan he has pursued has been endorsed by the lenders who will soon control the company, Ion said. The debt crunch hit Ion hard last month as it faced the prospect of missing a $19 million interest payment (Daily Variety, April 16).

Ion is not a mega-bucks player in syndie acquisitions, but it has become an important component for distribs who are increasingly cobbling together simultaneous off-net deals for shows on more than one outlet. Many cablers don’t mind sharing rights to a show with Ion because its network is still so low profile.

In a depressed market for off-net deals, the extra coin that Ion kicks in on top of a cable sale can help distribs get $500,000-$750,000 per episode in off-net coin for a drama series. Just a few years ago, successful skeins were routinely nabbing $1 million or more per episode.

Late Thursday, the bankruptcy court granted Ion immediate access to $25 million of the first $150 million that debt holders have agreed to provide the company. The company said it was in talks to acquire more off-net rights as well as “opportunistic original productions.”

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