Earlier this month, Nexstar said it had agreed to buy Tribune Media’s portfolio of 42 local television stations in a transaction valued at $4.1 billion. That merger would also give Nexstar ownership of Tribune’s flagship local TV station WGN (Channel 9) as well as sister broadcasters WGN Radio (720 AM) and the nationally-distributed WGN America channel.
The fate of WGN Radio and WGN America are largely up in the air in a post-Tribune world. In a conference call with reporters last week, Nexstar Chief Executive Officer Perry Sook said the company was not looking to immediately divest WGN America but was open to selling the channel “if someone is willing to pay a significant premium.”
Selling the channel would effectively end Tribune’s control of a channel that gave the company national exposure on cable and satellite early in its broadcast history. In the 1970s, Tribune was one of a handful of broadcasters to send a station from a major market to cable outlets in outlying areas via microwave, but Tribune solidified WGN’s national brand awareness after it was given the green light to upload the channel’s signal on satellite, which allowed the station to be received coast-to-coast to anyone with a large backyard satellite dish.
WGN’s satellite distribution allowed it to be offered by local cable subscribers in other parts of the country, too, and WGN became one of a handful of local broadcast stations to enjoy national “superstation” status; Tribune would eventually add Los Angeles based KTLA [Channel 5] and New York City’s WPIX [Channel 11] to its superstation slate. But WGN enjoyed a higher level of carriage compared to the other two stations largely thanks to exclusive programming rights of Chicago sports teams that made it attractive to cable and satellite operators.
The satellite channel severed most of its ties with its broadcast counterpart in Chicago in 2008 when then-Superstation WGN relaunched as WGN America. In 2014, it ended its run as a designated superstation by changing to a subscription network.
WGN America is distributed on both DirecTV and Dish Network and is carried by most major cable providers, including Comcast and Spectrum. If Nexstar decides to sell the channel, it would most likely attract buyers looking to launch a new channel in WGN America’s pay TV slot or relaunch WGN America with different programming.
“There have been some expressions of interest in buying that,” Sook said, according to the Chicago Tribune. But he did not elaborate on who those prospective buyers might be or what they would want to do with WGN America.
WGN Radio is a different story: Sook seemed less interested in keeping that asset in a post-Tribune world, but a company spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune that Nexstar had not made a decision one way or another on the radio station.
Nexstar outbid several other companies and venture capital firms for Tribune following a failed merger attempt between Tribune and Sinclair Broadcasting Group. The deal fell apart amid intense regulator scrutiny that saw the Federal Communications Commission refer the matter to a judge. Tribune filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Sinclair after the merger was called off; Sinclair filed a countersuit several weeks later.
Nexstar’s deal is expected to face similar, but less stringent, scrutiny. The company, which is already one of the largest broadcasters in the country, will have to divest a number of stations in order to meet federal regulatory approval. Its divestiture plans are expected to be unveiled over the next few weeks.