Sources say new owners will hang onto stations under new CEO

Tribune Co.’s pursuit of Peter Liguori for the CEO role at the post-bankruptcy entity is the surest sign that the new owners intend to hang on to its TV station group, at least for a little while.

The well-regarded exec brings 20 years’ experience in programming and marketing through his stints at Discovery, Fox Broadcasting, FX and HBO. Liguori would not be the kind of exec who’d be suited to orchestrate an auction of the company’s 23 major-market stations, plus the WGN America cabler.

Tribune declined to comment on the prospect of Liguori’s appointment, first reported Friday by the Chicago Tribune. Liguori did not return calls seeking comment. In recent months Liguori has served as a consultant to private equity giant Carlyle Group. He left Discovery last year after a two-year run as chief operating officer.

Liguori’s appointment would take effect after Tribune emerges from its four-year slog through bankruptcy reorganization, which is expected by year’s end. He would succeed Eddy Hartenstein, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times who was given CEO responsibilities last year.

Sources familiar with the situation say that the hiring of Liguori is part of the plan by the companies that will control the new-model Tribune — the former debtholders Oaktree Capital, Angelo Gordon and Co. and JPMorgan Chase — to focus on nurturing the TV assets under Liguori’s leadership. There had been speculation that the financial companies would have no interest in operating the Tribune assets and would move quickly to sell off the stations and newspapers.

Sources said the new regime may also be inclined to hang on to Tribune’s newspaper assets for a while unless a lucrative offer comes to light. There’s been chatter about News Corp. making a play for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

Tribune cleared one of the last big hurdles to emerging from bankruptcy on Friday as the FCC approved the transfer of the broadcast licenses for its stations to a new corporate entity. Post bankruptcy, Oaktree will have the largest equity stake in Tribune with about 22%, followed by Angelo Gordon (9%) and JPMorgan (8%), according to the FCC.

That process was also wrapped up in the long-running regulatory fight waged by media companies to eliminate the FCC’s ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same markets. Tribune has been granted waivers to that rule for decades that allow it to own major dailies and TV stations in Chicago (Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV), Los Angeles (LA Times, KTLA-TV) and three other markets.

The FCC on Friday approved temporary waivers in L.A. and three other markets (Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Hartford,-New Haven, Conn., and New York, where Tribune retains a 3% stake in Newsday) and a permanent waiver in Chicago.

There was a chance that the FCC could hold up the transfers of the licenses and the necessary waivers to Tribune’s new post-bankruptcy entity, but the commission has signaled its intent to do away with the cross-ownership ban enacted in 1975.

FCC chief Julius Genachowski has indicated he’s open to modernizing media ownership rules such as the newspaper-TV cross-ownership ban in light of the vast changes in the media biz since many of the regulations were enacted.

In a statement, Hartenstein hailed the FCC’s move as an important step for the company.

“We are extremely pleased with today’s action by the FCC,” he said. “This decision will enable the company to continue moving forward toward emergence from Chapter 11, a process we expect to complete over the course of the next several weeks.”

Hobbled by $13 billion in debt, Tribune was forced into bankruptcy in December 2008. That came just a year after Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell led a leveraged buyout that took the company private and turned it into an employee-owned entity.

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