Nexstar Media Group has emerged as the leading bidder for Tribune Media as it angles for a deal to create the nation’s biggest owner of local TV stations, The Post has learned.
Sources said Irving, Texas-based Nexstar, which owns 171 stations nationwide, looks poised to edge out rival Apollo Global Management, which recently teamed up for a bid with Michigan-based TV-station owner Northwest Broadcasting.
One person close to the talks said it appears Tribune is set to fetch more than $43 a share — the price that conservative-leaning TV giant Sinclair Broadcasting had offered for Tribune before its deal got scuttled by the Justice Department in August.
Shares of Tribune on Friday were recently trading at $40.15, up 26 cents, giving the company a market capitalization of $3.5 billion.
Sources cautioned that the talks were still fluid and that a deal could still fall apart.
In particular, Tribune’s board appears concerned that a merger with Nexstar — headed by Texas media tycoon Perry Sook — will require a lengthy review with antitrust regulators.
“Perry could probably pay a little more, but certainty of close is an issue, and Apollo can close a deal quicker,” according to one source close to the talks.
Chicago-based Tribune’s board of directors was slated to meet midday Friday to vet buyout offers it received on Wednesday, and a deal may not be announced until early next week, sources said.
Meanwhile, a bidding bloc formed by Cerberus Capital, Hicks Equity Partners and TV-station owner ION Media has dropped out of the auction, as has comedian-turned-media tycoon Byron Allen, who has failed to line up backers for a bid, sources said.
If it closes the deal, Nexstar would get Tribune’s 42 local TV stations, including WGN in Chicago and WPIX in New York City, vaulting Nexstar in size past Sinclair, which is currently the nation’s biggest local-TV owner with 193 stations.
As such, the merger would give Nexstar more negotiating leverage against cable companies. While it would also likely create antitrust hurdles, insiders were optimistic that such concerns wouldn’t derail a Nexstar-Tribune tie-up.
The Justice Department this summer appeared to block Sinclair’s Tribune deal partly because it felt Sinclair wasn’t being transparent about a plan to sell stations in overlapping markets to investors that were friendly to Sinclair Chairman David Smith.
People close to the Tribune auction now believe regulators were open to allowing the Sinclair-Tribune tie-up if the divestitures were to parties not related to Sinclair’s owners, sources said, indicating a positive outlook for a similar merger.
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