Tick…tock… the clock runs out on Randy Michaels

Randy Michaels has all but resigned as CEO of the Tribune Co. after a tumulus two-and-a-half years marred with allegations of sexual harassment, and comes a week after Chief “Innovation” Officer Lee Abrams resigned over an e-mail memo he sent containing profanity and racy videos.

Reports of Michaels’ resignation first surfaced in the New York Times’ website Monday night – the same paper which did an unflattering expose on the company two weeks ago. The reports indicated the Tribune board would ask Michaels to resign on Tuesday morning at a meeting, but never happened. In fact, Michaels quoted “I work here today and I’m still working”. But he did agree to resign and depart by Friday – especially after more allegations of sexual harassment appeared in a story that surfaced Tuesday night on Chicago Tribune’s website. 

Michaels’ role will be filled by four individuals: Chicago Tribune Media President and Publisher Tony Hunter; Tribune Company Chief Investment Officer Nils Larsen; Los Angeles Times President and Publisher Eddy Hartenstein; and Tribune Chief Restructuring Officer Don Libentritt.

Michaels became CEO shortly after Sam Zell bought Tribune in a heavy-debt acquisition in 2007, which sent the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2008 and has been there ever since and is currently working with creditors to emerge from bankruptcy. Since taking over, Michaels has been criticized for filling positions with individuals with cronies from the days he worked with them at Jacor and Clear Channel, who had little or no experience in key positions.

For example, Michaels hired Kevin Metheny (referred to as “Pig Virus” by Howard Stern, who worked under him at New York’s WNBC-AM in the 1980’s) to run WGN Radio – which saw an exodus of talent from the station since he took control, and in turn sent long-time listeners fleeing for the exits while failing to send new audiences through the entrances. He has been criticized for hiring ex-convict and former City Clerk James Laski for an evening talk show, and canceling the long-running Sports Central among other moves.

On the television side, former radio exec Sean Compton took over as head of Tribune’s station group and WGN America. While he did renew NBC Universal’s trio of daytime talk shows, the group dropped Disney-ABC action-adventure hour Legend of the Seeker after two seasons, forcing its cancellation; the embarrassing debacle over the test launch of Bill Cunningham’s daytime talk show, which is being sued over an episode regarding child-pageants – and not to mention a disastrous four-day test last June with bargain-basement production values; and being outbid by Fox for the off-network syndication rights to The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, two of the hottest sitcoms currently in prime-time. Meanwhile, WGN America continues to drift without a purpose or direction and Tribune’s CW affiliates continues to underperform in primetime.

And things are worse on the newspaper side, with all Tribune-related newspapers continuing to experience steep declines in circulation.

The futures of Methany and Compton are now in serious question, as is the future of The Bill Cunningham Show, which Tribune did say it was going forward with.  While syndicators are already rolling out their new shows for fall 2011, Tribune (who abandoned the syndication business in 2007) still hasn’t found a distributor for Cunningham.

With Abrams and Michaels gone, and the likely departures of others to follow, it will take years for Tribune to recover from this, from a financial and a PR standpoint. While legions of media fanboys (like me) and fangirls cheer on their departures, at the end of the day, the mess left behind by Abrams, Zell the Ziphead, Pig Virus, and The Court Jester will take longer to clean up and perhaps even longer to restore Tribune’s good name and reputation. And there’s no celebration in that.