While health officials warn of "significant disruption" and the stock market drops over coronavirus fears, WGN-TV owner Nexstar Media Group sees an economic upside: If people end up hunkered down at home during a widespread quarantine, it could mean more television viewers.
At least that's the take of Perry Sook, the chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Nexstar, which owns WGN in Chicago and nearly 200 other TV stations across the country.
"If you're quarantined in your home and one of the few things you can do is watch television, I think advertisers see the benefit in that," said Sook during a fourth-quarter earnings call Wednesday.
Growing worries over the potential spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. have not played well on Wall Street, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling more than 7% this week through Wednesday's close.
The epidemic has essentially shut down the Chinese economy as the country continues to grapple with the new respiratory illness. The virus is not widespread in the U.S., but dire warnings issued Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to prepare for disruption if the epidemic gains a foothold.
In the event the virus begins to spread, communities may have to impose "social distancing" measures to contain it, including shutting down schools, allowing employees to work from home and canceling meetings and large gatherings, according to the CDC. Such disruption to the normal routine would have "societal and economic impact," the agency said.
Sook said a coronavirus epidemic in the U.S. could boost television viewership and advertising revenue.
"We don't think it will have a negative impact on our operations," Sook said. "In fact, if it becomes more widespread in the United States and there's more quarantine in home and all of that, then it could potentially benefit our business because we'd be the primary source of entertainment."
Nexstar completed its $4.1 billion purchase of Chicago-based Tribune Media in September, creating the nation's largest local TV station group and moving WGN's TV, radio and cable stations under the Dallas company's ownership.
Since acquiring Tribune Media, Nexstar has shaken up the WGN-AM 720 on-air lineup and pulled the plug on Chicago cable news channel CLTV. But its biggest change is set to roll out this summer, when WGN America launches "News Nation," a three-hour nightly newscast to compete with established cable news networks such as CNN and Fox.
WGN America is hiring more than 140 employees in Chicago to produce and present the news, Sook said Wednesday.
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