Dennis FitzSimons has ankled his job as chairman, president and CEO of the Tribune Co. on the day the company completes its $8.2 billion buyout by the Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, who will take the company private.
FitzSimons’ resignation was anything but a surprise because Zell had publicly criticized the operation of the company over the past few years. The expectation is that Zell will become chief executive, and reports are circulating that Randy Michaels, head of radio for Clear Channel Communications, will become president of Tribune’s broadcasting division. Michaels previously ran the Zell-owned radio station company Jacor prior to its acquisition by Clear Channel.
Another executive who may take a top job at Tribune is Gerald Spector, exec VP and chief operating officer of Equity Residential. Zell is chairman of Equity Residential.
A 26-year veteran of Tribune, FitzSimons came up through the ranks of the station group, rising to president of Tribune TV in 1992. In 2003, he became the first broadcasting exec in the company to reach the top when he was named CEO of Tribune. Tribune owns TV stations in 19 markets, including WPIX New York, KTLA Los Angeles and WGN Chicago. The company also owns 14 newspapers, led by the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and New York Newsday. Tribune is in the process of selling another property, the Chicago Cubs.
Under FitzSimons’ leadership, the Tribune TV station group became a prodigious buyer of programming from Hollywood’s majors. For years, Tribune ranked as Warner Bros.’ single-largest customer, and the studio’s strong relationship with the station group expanded in 1993 with the creation of the WB Network, which morphed last year into the CW.
“There’s no person you’d want more as a partner or as a friend than Dennis,” said Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer. “The thing that always made Dennis stand out is that there is no guile with him. He’s completely honest, completely straightforward.”
FitzSimons’ peers also tipped their hats. David Barrett, prexy-CEO of Hearst-Argyle TV, expressed his “admiration for him and the work he has done in broadcasting over the years.”
One part of Tribune’s broadcast operations that’s shutting down is production, distribution and ad-sales division Tribune Entertainment, which has cut back its production in the past couple of years but was still distributing “American Idol Rewind” and “Soul Train.” Trifecta Entertainment will take over syndication of “American Idol Rewind.”
The Zell takeover got a boost on Nov. 30 when the Federal Communications Commission agreed to issue a waiver allowing Tribune to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.
FitzSimons took over the top job after Tribune had merged with the Los Angeles Times in an $8 billion deal that plunged the company into debt. Tribune was also late to beef up its Internet presence as its newspapers and TV stations began to lose advertising to ad-hungry websites.
In a statement, FitzSimons said, “I am proud to have been part of Tribune for more than 25 years.”
(Cynthia Littleton in Hollywood contributed to this report.)