Television executive Peter Liguori was named the new chief executive of Tribune Co. Thursday, taking the reins of the reorganized Chicago-based media company weeks after its emergence from bankruptcy.
In a widely expected announcement, Liguori, 52, a former top executive at Fox Broadcasting and Discovery Communications, was confirmed by Tribune Co.'s new seven-member board, which met for the first time Thursday in Los Angeles. Tribune Co. owns The Baltimore Sun.
"It can be daunting; I tend to view it as being exciting," Liguori said in an interview about his new job. "It's just a company of tremendous media assets with big iconic brand names, and many of those names are in major markets."
Liguori said he looked forward to leading Tribune Co. into a new era, focusing on content development across all media platforms. And despite speculation by analysts and industry insiders that the company was unlikely to retain its full portfolio of TV stations and newspapers, Liguori said he is hoping to keep Tribune's broadcasting and publishing businesses together under one roof.
"I don't care if it's newspapers or TV or digital operations or our other media assets: I'm hoping to make them work together," Liguori said. "And I'm really interested in building the company through innovation and through commitment to our mission of creating compelling content and best-in-class services."
Liguori replaces Eddy Hartenstein, who has been CEO of Tribune Co. since May 2011. Hartenstein will remain on the board and continue as publisher of the Los Angeles Times. He also will serve as special adviser to the office of CEO, according to Liguori.
"Eddy has done an exemplary job taking this company through some very, very rough times," Liguori said. "He has done a very good job as the publisher of a key asset, and I will benefit from having his advice and counsel and institutional knowledge at my side."
Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2008, saddled with a total of $13 billion in debt after real estate investor Sam Zell completed his $8.2 billion buyout less than one year earlier. It emerged from Chapter 11 on Dec. 31, 2012, with a healthy balance sheet, owned by its senior creditors: Oaktree Capital Management; Angelo, Gordon & Co.; and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Bruce Karsh, president of Los Angeles-based investment firm Oaktree, the largest Tribune Co. shareholder with about 23 percent of the equity, was named chairman of the new board, which also includes Liguori; former Yahoo interim CEO Ross Levinsohn; entertainment lawyer Craig Jacobson; Oaktree managing director Ken Liang; and Peter Murphy, a former strategy executive at Walt Disney Co.
A Bronx native and Yale graduate, Liguori is a former advertising executive who transitioned into television more than two decades ago. He is credited with turning cable channel FX into a programming powerhouse during his ascent to entertainment chief at News Corp.'s Fox Broadcasting. More recently, he was chief operating officer at Discovery Communications Inc., where he helped oversee the rocky launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network. He became interim CEO in 2011 after the previous executive was forced out; he left the company when Winfrey made herself CEO of OWN. Liguori has been working since July as a New York-based media consultant for private equity firm Carlyle Group.
Liguori said job one will be assessing Tribune Co.'s diverse portfolio of assets, which include 23 television stations; national cable channel WGN America; WGN Radio; eight daily newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times; and other properties, all of which the reorganization plan valued at $4.5 billion after cash distributions and new financing.
Despite its roots as a newspaper company, broadcasting has supplanted the declining publishing segment as the core profit center for the company. Liguori acknowledged broadcasting will be a focus going forward, but not necessarily at the expense of Tribune Co.'s newspaper holdings.
"I'm tasked to be a chief executive officer and a general businessman, and I'm going to take the same principles that I've used in broadcasting, and (extend) them out to all of our business," he said.
Liguori became president of Fox's FX Networks in 1998, when it was a small basic cable channel airing mostly reruns. Elevated to CEO in 2001, he remade FX by offering edgy original programming such as the "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me," creating a string of first-run successes.
Unlocking the value of WGN America, which lags top cable networks such as TBS and FX, will be a priority, Liguori said.
"In this very co-dependent media environment, it's not just sitting there and focusing on how quickly we could grow the bottom line," Liguori said. "The bottom line is the outcome of great content, great marketing, which will drive great ratings, which will attract advertisers, which will further our relationship with affiliates, and will lead to natural growth based on the fact that we have high levels of usership."
Content development will also be key for Tribune Co.'s other media properties, including newspapers, Liguori said.
"I look at the newspapers and appreciate what we do for the local communities, and do recognize that the newspaper business is challenged right now," he said. "But how do we innovate, how do we go out and create stories, create coverage, servicing community and spreading that content across all media platforms?"
In the face of digital competition and sagging publishing industry revenue, Tribune Co.'s newspaper holdings have declined to $623 million in total value, according to financial adviser Lazard. With some newspaper owners expressing interest in acquisitions, Liguori said: "I have a fiduciary responsibility to hear those out."
"Those would be evaluated on an as-come basis. However, with all that being said, it's my job to make sure it doesn't stop me from focusing on our day-to-day business and growing the assets that we have."
He added: "Newspapers are a core part of our business."
Further, Liguori said all of Tribune Co.'s assets will be assessed, with an eye toward maximizing performance, and ultimately, value for the company. That includes real estate holdings such as Tribune Tower in Chicago and Times Mirror Square in Los Angeles, which were on the block until they were taken off the market in 2009.
"In places like Chicago and LA, particularly, there's a bunch of underutilized space that's being leased and has high demand and getting very good rates," Liguori said. "As I look toward the real estate assets, I've just got to ascertain what the value of the properties are and are we best utilizing them."
With a clean balance sheet and the company operating profitably, Liguori said strategic acquisitions will also be on the table, as Tribune aspires to be more of a growth company going forward.
"I think it really changes the driving mission of Tribune versus the past four years, where it undoubtedly had to be a bit shackled," he said. "I look forward to seeing what possibilities are out there and with great financial rigor and diligence, determining whether or not acquisitions would help us."
While the first board meeting was held in Los Angeles, Liguori said it doesn't presage a westward migration for the 166-year-old Tribune Co.
"The corporate office will continue to be in Chicago, and I'm going to be spending considerable time there," Liguori said. "There's great tradition and great history of Tribune being an iconic brand in Chicago."
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