Gray Television's Run of Acquisitions Continues With Iowa Station Purchase

NEW YORK (The Deal) -- Since late 2013, Atlanta broadcaster Gray Television (GTN) has acquired more than two dozen TV stations throughout the U.S. Often, the targets have been small operators with the leading stations in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Odessa-Midland, Texas, which face an increasingly challenging marketplace.

"It's incredibly difficult to maintain a single TV station at the top of its game in this environment," said Gray's senior vice president of business affairs, Kevin Latek, who handles the company's M&A work and serves as general counsel, among other roles.

In addition to competition from Internet video, TV stations have to negotiate deals with cable operators that have become larger through consolidation and with the networks that provide programming.

"The negotiations in every direction require more scale," Latek said.

Gray generally targets the first- or second-leading station in small and midsized markets.

The company broadcasts in 47 markets. Knoxville, Tenn., the 61st-largest U.S. TV market, is Gray's biggest territory. The company has stations in about a dozen of the top 100 markets, but most of its properties are in smaller towns.

The most recent deal is the $100 million purchase of KCRG-TV, which is an affiliate of Walt Disney's (DIS) ABC network and is the top station in Cedar Rapids. The seller is Gazette Co., which publishes the Cedar Rapids Gazette. "They put that station on the air in the 1950s," Latek said. Tucson, Ariz., broadcasting boutique Kalil & Co. advised Gray on the purchase.

"Our operating philosophy is not to change what the stations are doing but to give them more resources," he said. "We try to take the back office stuff off their plate, so they can really concentrate on news, creative, sales, community involvement and the kind of things that people at stations want to be doing."

In all but one of the acquisitions in the past 22 months, Gray has had one-to-one negotiations with the seller. The exception was the roughly $340 million purchase of stations from Hoak Media and Parker Broadcasting in late 2013, in which the sellers held an auction.

Gray is paying 6.9 times KCRG-TV's average projected cash flow for 2015 and 2016. Station owners often blend results from even and odd years to account for spikes in political advertising. Gray financed the deal with cash already on its balance sheet.

The price for KCRG-TV exceeds the $81.4 million that Gray has paid in seven station acquisitions this year. The deals cumulatively came to 6 times broadcast cash flow for 2014 and 2015.

The company said it expects to close the deal in the fourth quarter of 2015, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission and other conditions.

Gray's revenue exceeded $500 million for the first time in 2014, following the series of deals.

The company will continue to look for acquisitions, Latek said, though the pace of deals will likely taper. "We've had a very healthy growth period over the last 22 months," he said. "We don't think it will continue over the next 22 months."

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