The Federal Communications Commission approved the $8.2 billion buyout of the Tribune Co. by a 3-2 vote Friday, a move that will allow the deal to close by the end of the year.
In approving the deal, the agency agreed to waive the ban on ownership of both a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market for two years, or possibly longer depending on whether the agency’s decision on a permanent cross-ownership rule is challenged in court.
Tribune Co. is owner of The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, nine other dailies and 23 television stations. The buyout is being led by real estate billionaire Sam Zell and will result in the publicly traded company becoming private.
The three Republican commissioners voted in favor of the sale while Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein were opposed.
The company currently owns both newspapers and broadcast stations in five markets: New York City, Chicago, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and Hartford, Conn. It needed the waivers before it could complete the sale.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed a permanent rule that would allow one company to own a newspaper and a broadcast station in any of the 20 largest markets. The full commission is set to vote on the proposal by Dec. 18. While Martin’s plan would grant Tribune some relief, it still would have pushed the closing date for the sale into next year, which the company has said would jeopardize financing for the deal.
Martin began circulating the temporary waiver plan among the other four commissioners on Tuesday. The chairman, anticipating that the ownership rules may be challenged in court, said Tribune Co.’s waivers will last six months after any potential litigation is concluded, or two years, whichever is later.
Once the time limit expires, the company will have to come into compliance with whatever the commission approves as the final rule.
Martin’s proposed permanent ownership rule also states that if a television broadcaster wants to buy a newspaper, the station may not be ranked among the top four in the market. That proposes a potential problem in Chicago, where Tribune Co. owns WGN-AM, WGN-TV and The Chicago Tribune.
But the FCC decided it would grant a permanent waiver of the rule for the Chicago market, noting that the combined ownership dates back decades and was grandfathered when the rule was originally adopted.
Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons has said earlier this week that if Martin’s plan were approved, it would allow the transaction to close by the end of the year.