UPDATE: Tribune Deadline Nears With No Sign of Strong Bid

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Tribune Co.’s approaching deadline for potential buyers to submit final proposals to acquire the media conglomerate was being watched with interest Tuesday by Wall Street, but with low expectations that attractive offers were forthcoming.

Investors nudged the company’s slumping stock price still lower a day before the reported Wednesday night deadline. With the key parties remaining silent, analysts said there was no sign of any offer in the works that would be enticing enough for Tribune to sell itself profitably.

Several have said there likely will be no deal for the whole company, which would leave Tribune to continue its four-month-old review process and decide whether to auction off its most sought-after pieces individually.

“We do not think Tribune’s strategic alternatives process will end in the sale of the company at a significant premium to the current stock price and think it is likely that Tribune will not be sold at all,” Craig Huber of Lehman Brothers wrote in a report to investors.

John Janedis of Wachovia Securities noted that the potential sale comes at a time when the newspaper industry’s sluggish fundamentals appear to have carried over into a new year. Any bids for Tribune, he said in a report, “will be disappointing.”

The Wednesday deadline is considered likely to pass without comment or announcement by the company.

Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said he could not discuss the review process, which the company has said will be completed by a committee of its board of directors sometime during the first quarter.

Tribune shares fell 8 cents Tuesday to close at $30.52 on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares have now lost a third of their value since Dennis FitzSimons took over as chief executive in January 2003, and they are lower than they were when the company signaled an interest in major restructuring changes last September.

Preliminary proposals last fall reportedly came from media rival Gannett Co. and Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle along with numerous private-equity firms. But they were not binding, and Tribune extended the deadline in hopes of raising the amounts offered.

The Chicago Tribune reported Monday, without identifying its sources, that “two players appear to still be in the game”: Madison Dearborn Partners, a Chicago-based investment firm trying to bring together various stakeholders to make an offer, and the California-based Chandler family. The Chandlers, former owners of the Los Angeles Times, are Tribune’s largest shareholder.

Madison Dearborn, which teamed with New York’s Apollo Management and Providence Equity Partners of Providence, R.I., in a preliminary bid, did not return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday. The Chandler Trusts, through a spokeswoman, declined comment.

Observers have speculated that Tribune management could be invited to participate in a transaction if the Madison Dearborn-led consortium submits a bid that is accepted.

Also said to be contemplating final bids for the entire company were the team of philanthropist Broad and supermarket investor Burkle. Broad declined comment through a spokeswoman Tuesday and Burkle did not immediately return a phone call. A third Southern California billionaire who reportedly bid $2 billion for the Times alone last month, music mogul David Geffen, also declined comment through his office.

UPDATE, from Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune follows:

After a painstaking, closely watched process that has stretched for almost four months, the auction for Tribune Co. appears to be fizzling.

Offers are due Wednesday at 5 p.m. Central time, but as of Tuesday night few, if any, of the original suitors seemed intent on making a firm bid.

A source familiar with the situation said the private-equity group that appeared to be the lead horse–Chicago’s Madison Dearborn Partners, New York’s Apollo Management and Rhode Island’s Providence Equity Partners–might not follow through on a bid.

If a bid fails to materialize Wednesday, that might delay any offer from California’s Chandler family, which observers said was working on a bid largely to make sure its 20 percent stake in Tribune wasn’t eroded by a lackluster auction.

Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, meanwhile, had “everything lined up” for a bid as of Sunday, said a source close to the group. But it wasn’t clear Tuesday night whether they truly intended to push the button on an offer.

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