UPDATED with executive comments and stock data: Investors responded to Tribune Media’s announcement this morning by driving its share price up more than 12% when the market opened — following a year during which its stock price lost more than half of its value. The TV producer, local broadcaster, and owner of WGN America says this morning that it hired two financial advisers, Moelis & Co and Guggenheim Securities, to “explore the full range of strategic and financial alternatives to enhance shareholder value.”
The range of options include “the sale or separation of select lines of business or assets, strategic partnerships, programming alliances and return of capital initiatives.” That could include the sale of WGN America, which recently completed its conversion from a superstation to a conventional basic cable channel.
Tribune Media split from the newspaper operation that runs The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times in 2014, after they emerged from bankruptcy in 2012.
“Tribune’s assets are valuable, powerful and performing well, as reflected in our full-year 2015 operating results” released this morning, CEO Peter Liguori says. “However, it’s our belief that our current stock price does not reflect the full value of these assets. With the help of outside advisors, we have decided to initiate a process to explore every possible strategic and financial option with one clear goal: to unlock the value of our stock.”
The market values the company at about $3.1 billion.
The board apparently wants to show that it still has confidence in the current team and strategy: It gave Ligouri a new two year employment contract, gave the CFO job to Chandler Bigelow (who had been interim CFO, and promoted General Counsel Eddie Lazarus to Chief Strategy Officer.
The company also authorized a new $400 million stock repurchase plan.
But the announcement coincided with a financial report for the last three months of 2015 that included a $385 million impairment charge plus a $74 million write down from WGN America’s syndication last year of Persons of Interest and Elementary.
Some $381 million of the write down came from WGN America. “It’s a choppier time for cable networks than it was three years ago,” Liguori told analysts in a conference call this morning.
As for the TV shows, the CEO says that Tribune Media syndicated them “at extremely attractive prices.” But here, too, the marketplace changed and “the audience for these programs is smaller than it was…As an accounting matter, they had to be written down.”
With the charges, Tribune Media had a net loss of $380.9 million in the quarter, down from a $314.7 million profit for the year-end period in 2014, on revenues of $547.6 million, down 1.1%. The top line beat analyst forecasts for $543.1 million.
If you factor out the one-time charges, the company’s earnings came in at 63 cents a share, ahead of the 55 cents Wall Street anticipated.
Liguori says he expects 2016 to be “a very strong year,” with help from political ads. “We’re in almost every presidential battleground state,” he says. The CEO expects to see as much as $200 million from political ads, up 20% over 2012.
On programming, he called the critically acclaimed series Manhattan — cancelled this month after two seasons — “superb.” He added, though, that “at the end of the day, success in the business comes down to how many people watch” and “not enough people watched.”
The recently launched dramatic series, Outsiders, is “a hit by any definition.”
Tribune says, in an SEC filing, that Liguori’s new contract provides for a base salary of $1.6 million a year, plus a cash bonus targeted at $1.5 million, a long term incentive grant with stock and options valued at $3.0 million. He also was given a one-time grant of 130,042 of performance share units.
If there’s a change in control, then he could cash in all of his unvested equity at their target values.