MADRID — Ending an era at Spain’s biggest media group, Juan Luis Cebrian has been named executive chairman of Prisa, whose assets include satcaster Digital Plus, newspaper El Pais and radio network Cadena Ser.

He replaces Ignacio Polanco, who has served as chairman since the death of his father, Prisa founder Jesus Polanco, in July 2007.

Cebrian’s climb to the top rung was widely expected: Since 2008, he has presided over the executive committee of Prisa’s board of directors.

Ignacio Polanco told board members Friday that Cebrian’s appointment confirms a shift at Prisa from a family business to an “independent management culture.”

That, however, has come about as much by circumstance as design. Prisa has been battling a huge debt pile ever since its ill-fated decision to take full ownership of its TV unit Sogecable in December 2007.

With its assets’ value plunging during 2008’s financial crisis, the Polanco family has been forced to seek new partners, diluting its core shareholding to recapitalize the conglom.

Paris-born billionaire Nicolas Berggruen injected $868 million in Prisa via Liberty Acquisitions in 2010. Last month, Spanish telco Telefonica and creditor banks Banco Santander, Caixabank and HSBC subscribed $528 million in convertible bonds.

When those bonds are converted into Prisa equity in 2014, the banks collectively would be the largest shareholder in Prisa with around a 24% combined stake vs. the Polanco family’s 15%. Prisa’s stock market free float will be around 40% of equity.

The Telefonica-bank deal helped cut Prisa debt, which stood at $4.3 billion at the end of 2011.

Prisa is still seeking to sell off assets. It also looks set to try to leverage its budding strategic alliance with Telefonica into a deal that would help it secure Spanish soccer league matches for Digital Plus from the season that starts in September.