Tribune profitable but uncertain

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The suspense at Tribune continues.

Nonoperating income and a longer reporting period helped the Chicago-based media group more than double fourth-quarter profit and post an 11% annual gain. But execs remained mum Thursday about whether the Los Angeles Times parent will sell any or all of its assets.

Tribune reported a 78% rise in net income for the final quarter, which included 14 operating weeks compared with 13 during fourth-quarter 2005.

Revenue from its newspapers, TV stations and other operations climbed 5% to $1.5 billion in the quarter.

Annual net income totaled $594 million, as 12-month revenue treaded water at $5.5 billion.

"We ended 2006 on a positive note with solid cash-flow performance in the fourth quarter," Tribune chairman and CEO Dennis FitzSimons said. "Key factors were improved results in broadcasting, strong interactive revenue growth and excellent expense control throughout the company. Our interactive businesses have shown continued growth, and we will build on that momentum. New revenue initiatives and efficient operations will be top priorities in 2007."

Tribune has put its businesses up for sale and signaled that it will make a decision on whether to sell all or part of the company by the end of March. But FitzSimons and other Tribune execs declined questions on the matter from reporters and analysts during an earnings conference call.

Los Angeles-based billionaires Ron Burkle, Eli Broad and David Geffen have figured in speculation about who might buy the Times or other portions of Tribune. Other prospective bidders include reported interest from Chicago financier Sam Zell, but observers have suggested a paucity of clearly lucrative offers makes it increasingly unlikely that ownership of the company will change hands.

"There's still no indication that management -- and a majority of directors supporting them -- intend to sell, or if they do that they would sell to anybody else except themselves in a leveraged buyout," veteran newspapers analyst John Morton said. "So it's still in limbo."

Analysts generally had a ho-hum response to the company's year-end financial news. Tribune shares rose modestly after the quarterly results were released but ended the day down 3 cents at $30.92.

"Despite the better-than-expected (financial) results, we believe a ceiling to the stock price ... leaves little upside to the current valuation," Bear Stearns analyst Alexia Quadrani wrote in a note to investors.

Wall Streeters have suggested that the company's current stock price has the prospect of a sale built in, and there has been little dramatic movement in Tribune shares as a result.

Georg Szalai in New York contributed to this report.
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