Scripps, Ion agree to deal

Chicago’s WCPX becomes a Scripps-owned station – but remains an Ion affiliate

In a blockbuster move, Cincinnati-based Scripps Thursday announced the purchase of Ion, a network with more than 125 affiliates, including 62-owned stations.

The deal includes Ion-owned Chicago’s WCPX – the former Christian station known as WCFC-TV from 1976 to 1998 when the ministry sold the station to Bud Paxson, who launched the PAX network later that year as the proceeds from the sale went to launch Total Living Network. PAX became “i” in 2005 then Ion in 2007.

Ion also owns stations in New York and Los Angeles.

The transaction is being made for $2.65 billion, with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investing $600 million into Scripps to help the company buy the network as Berkshire Hathaway already owns ABC affiliate WPLG-TV in Miami. Scripps owns or operates 62 other television stations in 43 markets, including WTMJ Milwaukee, WXYZ Detroit, and WCPO in Scripps’ hometown of Cincinnati, whose Ion station is on a digital subchannel of one of its competitors, Gray’s WXIX.

Due to the FCC’s rules regarding station ownership, Ion is divesting 23 stations to an unnamed buyer who will keep the stations as Ion affiliates. Scripps declined to name the buyer or stations being sold, but it is likely in markets where Scripps already owns two stations including Phoenix, Detroit, and Kansas City, among others. The deal is expected to close by spring 2021, pending FCC approval.

“Combining ION with Katz and Newsy, which also primarily earn revenue from national advertising, will increase Scripps’ reach into this durable ad market as it offers advertisers a larger platform on which to reach their audiences. Together, ION, Katz and Newsy, Scripps’ new national networks business, will reach nearly every American through free over-the-air broadcast, cable/satellite, over-the-top and digital distribution, with multiple advertising-supported programming streams,” Scripps said in a press release.

Scripps is already a huge player in the digital subchannel network space, already owning Bounce, Laff, Escape (now Court TV Mysteries), and Grit from their purchase of Katz Communications a few years ago, and the re-launch of Court TV last year. Ion has numerous digital subchannel space with Ion Kids, IonPlus, and several home shopping channels.

Ion generally air off-network syndicated repeats of procedural programs such as Law and Order: SVU, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Criminal Minds, among others in a checkerboarded “binge” format. In 2017, I profiled the network (more information on Ion can be found here) as they were in talks about a partnership with Fox at the time, but never materialized.

In an unusual move – at least in today’s era, Ion opts for the must-carry option instead of retransmission consent, which means Ion doesn’t receive any money from cable or satellite companies who carry the network. It perhaps explain why Ion’s feed for WCPX locally is not in high definition on DirecTV (but the identical Eastern feed for Ion is.) Scripps plans to continue opting for must-carry regarding Ion in any future deals.

The deal signals a possible back to normalcy when it comes to media deals, as most merger-and-acquisition activity was either halted or scrapped altogether due to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, Scripps agreed to sell New York’s WPIX to Mission Broadcasting, a subsidiary of Irving, Tex. -based Nexstar Broadcasting –  essentially reuniting the CW affiliate with KTLA Los Angeles and WGN-TV Chicago on a de facto basis as all three were originally part of Tribune Broadcasting. Mission owns Rockford ABC affiliate WTVO in a shared services agreement with Nexstar-owned Fox station WQRF.

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