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WADL owner Adell preparing lawsuit against Scripps over CW

An aerial photograph shows the television studios of Adell-owned WADL-TV in Detroit. (Courtesy photo)
An aerial photograph shows the television studios of Adell-owned WADL-TV in Detroit. (Courtesy photo)

The owner of an independent television station in Detroit says he will file a federal lawsuit against the E. W. Scripps Company if it moves forward with a plan to launch the CW Network on a rival broadcast station next week.

On Wednesday, attorneys representing WADL (Channel 38) owner Kevin Adell sent a litigation hold letter to the E. W. Scripps Company by mail, according to a copy obtained and reviewed by The Desk.

In the letter, attorneys for WADL and Adell urged Scripps to preserve “all documents…and other evidence that are, or may be, relevant to the dispute between you and WADL regarding the CW Network.”

“You have a duty to ensure, to the highest degree possible, that all possible relevant documents are not destroyed,” the letter said.

DOCUMENT: Read the litigation hold letter sent to Scripps (PDF)

In a half-hour phone conversation with The Desk early Wednesday morning, Adell said the letter was the first step toward litigation against Scripps for what he called “tortious interference” in a pending business deal between WADL and another media company called Mission Broadcasting.

That deal, announced earlier this year, would see Mission pay $75 million to acquire WADL, which would serve as the new home for the CW Network in Detroit, Adell said.

The acquisition has been held up at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for months after various public interest groups filed objections to the deal. Those groups say that the CW Network’s majority owner, Nexstar Media Group, stands to benefit the most from Mission’s acquisition of WADL because Nexstar operates all of Mission’s stations through shared services agreements and negotiates distribution contracts with cable and satellite companies on Mission’s behalf.

Nexstar’s operational control of Mission’s stations are not exactly a secret — Nexstar itself affirms it uses shared services agreements to control nearly all aspects of Mission’s operations. But public interest groups paint Mission as nothing more than a proxy — or “sidecar” — meant to help Nexstar avoid federal regulations that limit how many TV stations any one individual company may own, since — on paper — Mission stations are not technically owned by Nexstar.

The deal between Adell and Mission materialized several months after Paramount Global announced it was pulling the CW Network affiliation from eight of its owned-and-operated stations, including Detroit outlet WKBD (Channel 50). That move left Nexstar executives scrambling to find a new home for the CW Network in Detroit and other markets like Sacramento, Seattle and Philadelphia.

While the deal was working its way through the regulatory process, Adell said Nexstar CEO Perry Sook reached out to him to inquire about what it would take to bring CW Network programming to WADL. Adell said he had no interest in running WADL as a CW Network affiliate under his ownership, but he agreed to make certain changes and upgrades at his station because he knew the Mission deal was predicated on WADL becoming the new home of CW Network shows in the market.

Kevin Adell, the owner of Adell Broadcasting and WADL in Detroit. (Photo courtesy Adell Media)
Kevin Adell, the owner of Adell Broadcasting and WADL in Detroit. (Photo courtesy Adell Media)

“I put a lot of expense into it — changing all the promos, the website, getting the station up to their level, all the fiber [communication lines], all the stuff they wanted,” Adell told The Desk on Wednesday. “[Nexstar] gave me a to-do list. And I said, no problem. It’s just a checkbook and a list of things to do.”

Shortly after the upgrades were done, Adell said Nexstar sent “some old, retired guy” to hand-deliver a contract concerning the CW Network. Adell said he was not impressed with the way the Nexstar executive looked — he mentioned more than once that the executive, whom he didn’t name, was wearing gym shoes — but he was particularly unimpressed with the deal Nexstar wanted him to sign, which would have made WADL the home of the CW Network for 36 months.

Adell said he refused to sign the agreement, fearing that if Mission backed out of the deal for WADL, he would be stuck with the CW Network for three years. He didn’t want to run a CW Network affiliate — he wanted to sell the station.

“I built the station from the ground up,” Adell said. “The reason why I’m selling it is because I took it as far as I could take it — I can’t take it any farther. There’s nothing more for me to do.”

But Adell feared if he signed the agreement, he might lose his leverage in selling the station. When asked by The Desk if he was open to an agreement with a shorter affiliation term — say, three to six months — Adell curtly replied that he “wouldn’t sign an affiliate deal for three seconds.”

After the visit from the “old retired guy,” Adell said he reached out to Sook with a different offer: Nexstar would pay WADL to distribute CW Network programming until the deal with Mission went through. Once the purchase was consummated, Mission and Nexstar could do whatever they wanted with the station, and Adell would be up $75 million and then some.

The corporate headquarters of Adell Broadcasting and its religious TV network, The Word Network, which is next door to Scripps-owned WMYD in Detroit. (Photo courtesy Kevin Adell)
The corporate headquarters of Adell Broadcasting and its religious TV network, The Word Network, which is next door to Scripps-owned WMYD in Detroit. (Photo courtesy Kevin Adell)

Adell said that offer went nowhere. When he called Nexstar to try to talk with Sook, he was told more than once that Sook was too busy or had left for the day. (When The Desk reached out to Nexstar for comment on this story, a receptionist put the call on hold, then said the company’s spokesperson, Gary Weitman, had gone home.)

Feeling rebuffed, Adell used the last bit of leverage he felt he had: Earlier this month, he dropped the CW Network from WADL. The move didn’t send Nexstar back to his doorstep; instead, on Monday, the company announced an agreement with Scripps to move the CW Network affiliation to WMYD.

The announcement infuriated Adell. The two stations have a long-running — and, at times, acrimonious — feud in the Detroit market, where a heightened sense of competition has led to a bitter rivalry between two companies whose main offices are less than 100 feet from each other. (Adell Broadcasting is co-located with Adell’s other venture, the international religious outlet The Word Network, which is next door to WMYD; WADL’s studios are in a different part of the city.)

As Adell sees it, Scripps should have known that he had a pending deal for Mission to purchase WADL, and that the entire agreement was predicated on WADL becoming the new home of the CW Network. After all, the acquisition was widely reported, and transaction-related documents that were filed with the FCC are public records that can be easily discovered with a Google search.

“It would be like if I took the ABC affiliation from Channel 7,” Adell said, referring to WXYZ-TV (Channel 7, ABC), which is also owned by Scripps. “What would happen to that deal? They would sue me for interfering, don’t you think?” (A spokesperson for Scripps declined to comment on the matter.)

When asked if he might also sue Nexstar — as Adell affirmed in a phone call with The Desk on Tuesday — Adell said it was still in the cards, but he was going to let whatever paper trail is unearthed in his potential lawsuit against Scripps lead the way.

“I’m gonna sue Scripps first, and then I’m gonna see,” he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said WADL owner Kevin Adell reached out to Nexstar Media Group CEO Perry Sook with an offer to bring the CW Network programming to the station. The first contact about the CW Network was made by Sook, according to Adell.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).