Tribune Media sale will cut WGN’s hometown ties

WGN Television Opening Night (April 5, 1948)

Don’t look now, but “Chicago’s Very Own” may not belong to Chicago much longer.

Regardless of who buys Tribune Media — and right now the leading contenders appear to be Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and Sinclair Broadcast Group — it is all but certain to mean the end of local ownership for WGN-Channel 9 and WGN AM 720, two venerable hometown icons.

WGN Radio was founded in 1924 by Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick, who adopted the call letters from the slogan on his masthead (“World’s Greatest Newspaper”). WGN Television followed in 1948. They’ve been synonymous with Chicago ever since.

With a legacy of “Bozo’s Circus,” Jack Brickhouse, “Garfield Goose,” Wally Phillips, “Family Classics,” Tom Skilling and so many other uniquely treasured programs and personalities over the years, WGN is part of our collective DNA.

Until this week, speculation has focused on Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group as the most likely to acquire Tribune Media’s 42 television stations, WGN America cable network and WGN Radio. The last major impediment to a deal was lifted April 20 when the FCC voted to ease limits on broadcast TV ownership.

Not that anyone at WGN would welcome a takeover by Sinclair. As the country’s largest operator of local television, the company is known for politically motivated news and programming decisions and for close ties to the Trump administration.

During the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump's campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to “secure better media coverage,” according to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Just last month the company hired Boris Epshteyn, the campaign’s former senior advisor and White House assistant communications director, as chief political analyst. Sinclair said Epshteyn will “play a pivotal role in our mission to dissect the stories in the headlines and to better inform and empower our viewers.” He’ll also appear as a commentator on all of Sinclair’s stations.

With WGN Television now producing 70½ hours of local news each week (and adding more all the time), the prospect of Sinclair calling the shots has people who care about ethics and integrity in the newsroom more than a little worried.

WGN Radio staffers have their own anxieties about Sinclair, which has little interest in the radio business. The company now has only four radio stations in its portfolio — all in Seattle/Tacoma, Washington.

Just when Sinclair was poised to make its move, another potential buyer suddenly emerged. According to published reports, Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox has teamed up with the private equity firm Blackstone Group to try to outbid Sinclair for Tribune Media. But would they really be any better?

21st Century Fox also owns Trump’s favorite network, Fox News Channel. Fox News is still trying to dig its way out of the sexual harassment and gender discrimination scandal that claimed founding chief executive Roger Ailes and top host Bill O’Reilly. On Monday Fox News co-president Bill Shine also resigned.

Fox Television Stations already owns WFLD-Channel 32 and WPWR-Channel 50 in Chicago (although WPWR recently agreed to relinquish its bandwidth in the FCC spectrum auction). A Tribune Media deal would put WGN Television and Fox 32 under common ownership and management. If that occurs, you can bet that many jobs will be lost and quality will suffer.

“Bloodbath” was the one-word prediction a top executive shared Monday.

In preparation for a sale, Tribune Media has divested most of its real estate here, including its landmark Tribune Tower headquarters at 435 North Michigan Avenue and WGN studios at 2501 West Bradley Place. They’re just tenants now.

The deadline for final bids is Thursday. Whether the top bidder turns out to be Murdoch or Sinclair or Nexstar Media Group or someone else, WGN soon will be in the hands of out-of-town owners for the first time in its 93-year history.

When that happens, something special will be lost forever.

"Bozo's Circus"