Charter files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Charter Communications Inc. on Friday filed for a prearranged Chapter 11 bankruptcy to get relief from its creditors, as the nation's fourth-largest cable operator strives to keep its head above water and still compete with phone companies and satellite TV providers.

The St. Louis-based company seeks to emerge from bankruptcy as early as the end of summer and doesn't plan on selling any of its assets to competitors. After Chapter 11, interest costs at Charter, which has never posted a profit since going public in 1999 due to massive debt-interest payments, will be cut in half to $830 million a year.

The filing restructures about $8 billion of debt at Charter, which is controlled by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, but leaves about $13 billion of debt on its books. Allen will control 35 percent of the votes in the reorganized company.

In the bankruptcy, Allen's 51 percent equity stake in the cable operator will be wiped out, along with shares of other stockholders. Allen also holds some debt and preferred stock.

Charter filed a prearranged bankruptcy, which has the agreement of major bond holders. The rest of the debtors will be dealt with through bankruptcy court.

The cable operator racked up massive amounts of debt as it grew through acquiring cable systems. For years the company has ducked insolvency, but it is now coming up against tight credit and billions of dollars of debt coming due.

On Friday, Fitch Ratings downgraded its issuer default rating on Charter and its subsidiaries to "D" — its lowest rating, indicating bankruptcy — from "C." The rating measures Charter's vulnerability to defaulting on its debt. Fitch also affirmed certain senior unsecured, senior secured and convertible senior debt.

It also raised its rating on some credit facilities due to definition changes at Fitch that are unrelated to the bankruptcy. The actions affect $21.7 billion of debt.

While the bankruptcy does provide relief, it remains to be seen whether Charter can finally post a net profit with a smaller debt load during a recession.

Charter said that along with the bankruptcy filing it filed motions requesting permission to keep employee wage and benefits programs running and to continue customer programs without interruptions. Charter also plans to continue paying trade creditors in full.

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