At Vivendi’s October 14th board meeting, Wall Street and Hollywood are banking on the French company directors vote to sell its 20% of NBC Universal. Waiting breathlessly for that decision, which is now pretty much a foregone conclusion, are NBCU’s parent company GE and Comcast, respectively the wannabe seller and buyer and asset swappers of an eventual 51%/49% partnership for the branded entertainment giant. Right now the process of due diligence is underway. Tonight, I’ve learned from Comcast insiders that the largest U.S. cable service provider wants the deal done and announced in November, specifically by Thanksgiving. Well, that’s certainly a short deal but very doable. Of course, Comcast insiders recognize that there’s a year of regulatory hurdles to be cleared before NBCU ownership actually changes. (Oh, wait: didn’t some struggling showbiz blog mistakenly claim this deal was done back in September? For 100% of NBCU? And then erase all mention of that blooper?)
So what happened to all the other potential suitors for NBC Universal, those tirekickers who wanted to see if they could take control of the company? All gone, for now. According to these Comcast insiders, there were talks with Rupert Murdoch, who was too concerned about the regulatory risks for his News Corp. And also talks with Comcast bitter rival John Malone, which ended “upon the realization there’s not enough value there to do a deal.” And Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes again dumped cold water on talk that his company might take a stab at NBCU. “Somebody has finally noticed that these things don’t work out so well,” he said at a NYC conference, adding, “We love to see our competitors taking risks.” So that leaves only Comcast in the running now.
But the other big news from these Comcast insiders is what Comcast plans vs what GE wants as to who will be running NBC Universal when the dust settles. There’s a very obvious PR offensive underway by NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker and his GE boss Jeff Immelt to spread the impression that Comcast is leaning towards keeping Zucker. But that’s not what Comcast insiders are saying. Tonight, I’ve learned they say Steve Burke, Comcast’s COO and Comcast Cable Communications president, “would replace Zucker after a short period of time”.
Well, that should spell relief to Comcast shareholders that neither bosses Brian Roberts nor Steve Burke can be Zuckered. This, despite yesterday’s interview with BusinessWeek‘s Ron Grover where the GE topper declared Jeff “as good as anyone running a media company”. Immelt stressed he “totally” wants Zucker to stick around but stopped short of saying Zucker has been chosen to continue to run the entertainment assets. Immelt’s PR folks put those questions off limits, the mag said. But I and others for weeks now have been hearing buzz that Immelt has a quiet pact with Zucker so he’ll stay on. My latest information is that Comcast likes its own exec a lot better than Immelt’s.
As Roberts’ longtime No. 2, Steve Burke is the former ABC broadcasting president and the architect of Comcast’s 2004 attempted hostile takeover of Disney (his loathing of FrankenEisner was an open secret). He is also the son of the former president of Capital Cities/ABC before it was bought by Disney. Unlike Zucker who at best is a pretender to the throne, Burke is true broadcast royalty by blood. I recall when, during the Mouse House bid, Burke pledged to return Disney’s animation to its former glory. I’m sure his intent now is to return NBC and Universal to their former glory. Finally.