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Signs of change dot local television landscape: Tribune could sell local stations; Lin changes format

July 17, 2006

One local television station is preparing for a radical format change, and there's talk that another station could be for sale.

Officials for Chicago-based Tribune Co. are sending mixed signals about the possibility that its two Indianapolis stations-WTTV-TV Channel 4 and WXIN-TV Channel 59-are on the block. Meanwhile, Rhode Island-based Lin TV Corp. confirmed that a major programming change is on the way for its WNDY-TV Channel 23.

Tribune Chairman and CEO Dennis FitzSimmons' recent proclamation that the media company would consider selling stations "non-core to its strategy" set off a firestorm of speculation. FitzSimmons only ruled out selling TV stations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Last month, Tribune sold Atlanta station WATL-TV to Virginia-based Gannett Co. for $180 million and WCWN-TV in Albany, N.Y., to California-based Freedom Communications for $17 million.

"What we're trying to do is redeploy assets; we're trying to run our existing businesses, which have had a difficult growth period, more efficiently while still maintaining quality and relevance in our individual local markets," FitzSimmons told Media-Week.

Robert Papper, Ball State University communications professor and research analyst for the Radio Television News Directors Association, doesn't discount the possibility that Tribune could sell its local stations.

"Tribune's planning is caught up in a lot of internal politics," Papper said. "Some [stakeholders] want to sell at least the smaller stations, others want to sell them all. This is about stock price and company value."

But Tribune's local general manager, Jerry Martin, doesn't expect either of the company's central Indiana stations to sell-at least not in the immediate future.

"Anything is possible, but I think it's very unlikely," Martin said. "We have a strong duopoly here, with a new building, and I don't expect anything to happen anytime soon." The two stations have been housed in a building at Intech Park, near West 71st Street and Interstate 465, since late 2003.

Papper thinks FitzSimmons might be enticed to sell one or both of Tribune's Indianapolis stations if a suitor requested them as part of a package deal. One factor industry experts said might dampen a sale possibility is the relatively low profit margins at WTTV and WXIN.

WTTV's position will strengthen this fall when it begins airing CW network shows. CW is a combination of the mostpopular UPN shows, such as "Everyone Hates Chris" and "WWE Smackdown," and the best of the WB network, including "The Gilmore Girls" and "Smallville." WB and UPN will fold this fall. WXIN, which is a local Fox affiliate, is the stronger of Tribune's two Indianapolis stations, based on audience and revenue.

"Tribune executives are under tremendous pressure right now from stockholders, so it's really difficult to say what they might consider," Papper said.

Lin TV Corp.'s plans are much more certain for WNDY, which is losing its UPN programming when the network ceases operations.

Following months of speculation about WNDY's future, Lin Vice President Scott Blumenthal confirmed to IBJ that the station has signed a deal with 20th Century Fox's My Network TV to bring a format made popular in Latin America to the central Indiana airwaves this fall.

The local station will start airing My Network TV programming Sept. 17, while also continuing to carry local shows, including WISH-TV's 10 p.m. news. WISH, the local CBS affiliate, also is owned by Lin.

My Network TV primarily will air telenovelas, which are like American prime-time soap operas, but with distinct beginnings and endings. Most telenovelas run 12 to 14 weeks. Most of the telenovelas airing on WNDY will be in English, and will feature some known and up-andcoming stars, Blumenthal said.

"This format is extremely popular in many Hispanic countries, and although it's the first approach to this type of programming in the U.S., we think it's going to be very successful," he said.

Lin will start to promote the format change later this month, Blumenthal said.

Although UPN's viewer ratings were spotty, industry experts think WNDY's format change could hurt advertising revenue.

"You have to have programs with name recognition to drive ad sales," said Scott Uecker, a University of Indianapolis communications instructor. "It's going to take time to build any kind of brand equity with this new network carrying a new type of programming to the market."


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