THREE MONTHS after Fisher Communications, the struggling Seattle-based television-and-radio company, hired an investment bank to assess its future, the long-rumored sale of the company appears to be proceeding apace. Last month, Fisher's board of directors fielded two offers, from LIN TV Corp. of Providence, R.I., and Phoenix-based Sonoran Capital. Each offer is worth as much as $500 million, plus the assumption of $300 million of Fisher's debt.
Gary Chapman, LIN's CEO, did not return a request for comment. Chris Wheeler, a Fisher spokesperson, declined to comment on any aspect of the offers or any impending sale.
Reportedly, Goldman Sachs, the company's investment banker, also presented a range of options to the Fisher board—everything from standing pat to selling the company piecemeal to selling it as a whole.
Publicly traded but family-controlled Fisher consists of ABC affiliates KOMO-TV, Channel 4 here, and KATU-TV in Portland, eight other TV stations, and 28 radio stations throughout the Northwest, including KOMO-AM, KVI-AM, and KPLZ-FM in Seattle. The company has been steadily losing money because of real-estate investments, such as its lavish new Denny Way home, Fisher Plaza, and softening advertising revenue. Through the first nine months of last year, the company lost $5.1 million. Year-end results are expected soon.
Despite its financial problems, the company remains an inviting target, says Robin Flynn, a broadcasting-industry analyst with Kagan World Media in Carmel, Calif.
"It's generally a good time to sell," she says, noting that, even in an economic recession, radio stations in particular are fetching solid prices. That's because the number of radio licenses is static, and companies like Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,225 radio stations, including five in Seattle and Tacoma, are looking to swallow every radio station possible.
Flynn says that Fisher's talk-news KVI-AM could be worth as much as $31 million. KOMO-AM, the all-news station with a long-term contract to broadcast the Mariners starting this year, continues to struggle in the most recent Arbitron ratings. She estimates that KOMO-TV alone could be worth $250 million.
One company that Flynn and others say would make a natural suitor for Fisher would be the Hearst Corp., owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I think it would make a lot of sense," says Flynn. "They'd be able to achieve economies in their news operations." Federal regulations prohibit so-called "cross ownership," when one company owns a newspaper and a television station in the same market. (There are a few grandfathered exceptions to this rule around the country.) So it is not surprising that Hearst says it is not a bidder for KOMO-TV. But many in the media business hope the Federal Communications Commission will relax that rule.
Separately, Fisher sold two TV stations in Georgia last month for $40 million, taking a $17 million loss on the purchase prices. But the cash infusion from the sale could let Fisher meet interest payments on its debt and give it more time to clean up its financial affairs or find better offers for the company.
Prior to selling its Georgia stations, Fisher unloaded several properties from its real-estate holdings, including four Lake Union parcels. Together with the sale of the Georgia stations, that raised more than $150 million for the company.