Chandlers' interest may bring Tribune split

Takeover bid by family is viewed as a sign media giant's parts would be parceled off

December 14, 2006|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

NEW YORK -- A takeover bid for Tribune Co. by its biggest shareholder would increase the chances that the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team eventually will be split up.

Theodore G. Venetoulis, a publisher leading a group of local investors interested in buying The Sun in Baltimore from Tribune, said he is encouraged by reports in The New York Times that the Chandler family might join private equity firms to buy the company. "If the Chandlers are involved, that would probably indicate that whoever buys it would parcel off some of its properties," Venetoulis said. "We just want a crack at buying The Sun, so anything that moves the process along is a plus for us."

Splitting Tribune, the second-largest U.S. newspaper publisher, is less likely initially because asset sales would create large tax bills for the company. The Chandlers wouldn't encounter such hurdles, Venetoulis said. In addition to the Los Angeles Times and The Sun, Tribune owns nine other daily newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and The Hartford Courant. The company also runs 25 television stations.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the Chandlers had spoken with several private equity firms about making a joint offer to buy Tribune after becoming frustrated at the lack of interest in the company since it was put up for sale in September.

Dan Katcher, a spokesman for the Chandlers, declined to comment. Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said the board anticipates making an announcement in the first quarter next year.

"The board has always been willing to listen to any and all interested parties," Weitman said.

Shares of Tribune rose 13 cents to close at $32.62 yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock is up 7.8 percent this year.

Tribune's efforts to find a single buyer for the company have been hampered by the slowing advertising market for newspapers and network television stations, said Michael Kupinski, an analyst at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. Competition from Internet companies such as Google Inc., which are attracting advertisers, has damped enthusiasm, he said.

"Downward pricing pressure from Google and others has to make anyone thinking of buying into this industry less than optimistic." Kupinski said. "When the outlook for newspaper and television advertising is so uncertain, that's a significant concern for any buyer."

Tribune directors agreed to consider selling the company after the Chandler family criticized management's performance and its plans to revive sales. A board committee reviewing the company's alternatives last month delayed a decision on selling until early next year. "The Chandlers are probably quite discouraged," said Brian Shipman, a New York-based analyst for UBS AG.

Tribune dismissed initial buyout offers from private equity firms Bain Capital LLC and Apollo Management LP as too low. Boston's Bain and New York's Apollo offered about $32 a share, giving no premium to the company's stock market value.

California billionaires Ron Burkle and Eli Broad also made an offer, as did a group consisting of Thomas H. Lee Partners LP, also based in Boston, and Fort Worth's Texas Pacific Group. Apollo was joined in its bid by Madison Dearborn Partners LLC of Chicago and Providence Equity Partners Inc., based in Providence, R.I.

Music mogul David Geffen also has expressed interest in buying Tribune as a means of acquiring the Los Angeles Times .

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