After a four-year slide, the station market has picked up enough to start shaking up the ranks of the largest station owners. But the collapse of UPN and The WB threatens to spoil some of the dealmakers' fun.
Broadcasting & Cable's annual tally of the Top 25 TV Station Groups finds that a flurry of deals over the past nine months has triggered more shifts among the top ranks of the industry than we've seen in years.
After the 2000 dotcom bust, plunging ad revenues and station prices largely froze the market in place. Further, the industry's hopes of easing federal ownership restrictions faded as courts blocked looser regulation. Rather than sell into a weak market, station owners waited for a revival.
That recovery seems to have started last year, when buyers flocked to the auctions of Emmis Communications' TV unit, paying startlingly high prices. Several other deals soon followed.
NBC TV Stations stands to fetch $600 million in a deal to unload small- market stations, sending it down the list from third place last year to fourth this year. Ion Media, (until recently, known as Paxson Communications) steps up into third place.
“The station market looks relatively healthy from the standpoint of what we saw based on the interest on the four stations,” says NBC TV Stations President Jay Ireland of the deal with Media General, whose operation rises four spots, to 16th place, as a result.
Fox Television Stations nearly became the No. 1 broadcaster, but CBS Corp. remains in the top slot thanks to the havoc caused by Mother Nature. CBS cut a deal to sell its New Orleans UPN station, WUPL, to Belo Corp. last summer, but Belo walked away after Hurricane Katrina, claiming contractual protection from a “material adverse change” of conditions. WUPL stays with CBS while the company pursues a lawsuit against Belo.
Emmis falls off the list entirely, having sold 13 out of 16 stations.
As the sellers shrink, the buyers grow. LIN Television jumped three places, from 23rd to 20th, after buying part of Emmis' portfolio. Raycom Television rose three spots, from 17th to 14th, after taking over Liberty Corp.
The biggest impediment to market momentum is the upheaval among the smaller broadcast networks. Since January, when CBS and Warner Bros. announced the demise of The WB and UPN, stations have been scrambling to affiliate with one of the new networks, CBS/Warner Bros.' The CW and Fox's My Network TV. Station buyers, meanwhile, are standing on the sidelines watching the show.
“How do I value these things?” asks longtime station broker Frank Boyle of Frank Boyle and Associates. “The answer is, it ain't an easy question to answer.”
The turmoil of the new networks has already thwarted Granite Television's planned sale of WB affiliates in San Francisco and Detroit. It also stymied Emmis' sale of its WB affiliate in Orlando, Fla. My Network TV and The CW don't even start until September. It's natural to believe that would-be station buyers will wait to see how—or if—those new players work out. The answer to that will, no doubt, determine some slots on next year's B&C's Top 25. Stay tuned.