It may be time to sell WGN America.
Peter Liguori will resign as CEO of Tribune Media (TRCO) , owner of 42 local TV stations as well as WGN America, an indication that the once mighty superstation could be headed for a sale.
Tribune Media, which spun off its newspaper holdings in 2014 into what is now known as Tronc (TRNC) , said Wednesday that Liguori will leave the company after it reports its fourth-quarter earnings in early March. Shares of Tribune Media, nominally based in Chicago though Liguori spends much of his time in Los Angeles, were up 0.7% to $29.17 on Wednesday morning, though the stock remains down nearly 25% over the past six months.
Bruce Karsh, chairman of Tribune's board of directors, said in the statement that "it was time to find a new CEO to run the more broadcast-centric company." The company declined to comment on whether WGN America might be for sale, pointing instead to having retained Moelis and Guggenheim Securities in February as financial advisers to explore "the full range of strategic and financial alternatives to enhance shareholder value."
Tribune said its board would work with Korn Ferry in the search for a new chief executive. In the meantime, Tribune board member Peter Kern will serve as interim CEO.
Liguori's pending departure, after more than three years as CEO, follows a rocky period for a company that was once among the country's largest media conglomerates. Last month, Tribune agreed to sell its Gracenote video and music data business to Nielsen (NLSN - Get Report) for $560 million and announced it would pay a special dividend of $500 million in the first quarter.
Both moves were viewed as actions aimed at placating shareholders disappointed by the company's recent performance. In November, Tribune lowered its revenue forecast for 2016 by $100 million, citing weaker-than-expected political advertising sales. Later that month, Tribune said it expected revenue for the year to total between $2.15 billion and $2.18 billion, compared with an earlier forecast of $2.25 billion to $2.28 billion.
Tribune's struggles weren't simply a matter of President Trump's unorthodox campaign, in which he spent far less on political advertising than previous major party candidates. Instead, the company's difficulties lie in part with its inability to secure higher fees for WGN America, a common problem for smaller networks at a time when consumers are turning away from the traditional 100-plus-channel cable TV bundle.
Last month, AT&T (T - Get Report) elected to no longer carry the Esquire Network, a joint venture between Comcast's (CMCSA - Get Report) NBCUniversal and Hearst. Esquire later said it will continue to operate as an online network.
Unlike much larger media companies such as Disney (DIS - Get Report) or 21st Century Fox (FOXA) , Tribune has been at a disadvantage when negotiating affiliate fees for WGN America, a standalone network. Disney, Fox and others including Time Warner (TWX) routinely package their best-known networks with other smaller channels in their carriage deals with large pay-TV operators such as AT&T and Comcast.
Liguori came to Tribune Media following stints at Discovery Communications (DISCA - Get Report) , where he held the post of chief operating officer, and as a former chairman of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting. His specialty was in programming, and hopes were high when he took over Tribune that WGN could raise its profile along the lines of Time Warner's TBS and TNT.
Yet WGN America remains in the process of transforming into a full-fledged cable network following decades as a superstation, a local broadcaster available on pay-TV platforms. Under Liguori, Tribune aggressively invested in original content such as Salem and Manhattan, in hopes of increasing its distribution and bargaining power. To raise cash for TV programming, he sold off many of the company's real estate holdings, including its famous Tribune Tower headquarters in Chicago.
As for Liguori, his next stop may be Sony (SNE - Get Report) , where he has been rumored to be a candidate to replace Michael Lynton as CEO of Sony Entertainment. Lynton is set to become chairman of Snap, owner of the popular Snapchat messaging app.