EXCLUSIVE: That’s the word to me from sources surrounding GE and its 80% ownership of NBC Universal now that the Vivendi put is coming due. The conventional wisdom has long been that Vivendi may decide to sell its 20% of NBCU this year since the French company is more interested in expanding into telcom than hanging onto a non-core asset like media. Today, NBCU boss Jeff Zucker told a Universal town hall meeting for employees attended by Ron Meyer and the new regime at Universal Pictures, “There are a number of scenarios possible, but I can’t comment,” when asked about any NBCU sale. Also today, media reports said opening statements began in that class action lawsuit by shareholders against the Vivendi media group back when it owned all of Universal Studios. A lawyer for the class told a NYC jury that Vivendi continued to make glowing statements about its growth and earnings even as it faced a liquidity crisis affecting investors who bought shares as the French group neared bankruptcy in 2002. Those shareholders have accused Vivendi and its former top executives, Jean-Marie Messier and Guillaume Hannezo, of hiding the truth.
Remember, it’s still a “what if” scenario between GE and companies like Comcast desiring a stake or even control of Vivendi’s 20% of NBCU or more of the media company. Every November, Vivendi can trigger a right to sell its 20% stake in NBCU, either in the market or to NBCU’s parent General Electric which has the right to sell the stake to a 3rd party. Speculation now centers on whether GE is considering shedding control of NBCU and willing to cede 51% ownership of the spunoff entity for the right deal. This would mean that GE has decided NBCU is a non-core asset. One CNBC report today is that GE may shrink GE Capital (because the economic crisis made investors see the company as a financial play and punished the stock for it) and expand into industrial businesses instead. Hmm.
There’s nothing new that NBC Universal is now formally in play. It’s still the preliminary stages of kicking the tires. If GE is willing to cede a controlling 51% stake in NBCU to any potential buyer for the right deal, that makes sense. Because no media giant or other company wants just a passive investment in NBCU, including Vivendi.) The scenario still being talked about is that GE would buy Vivendi’s 20% and spin off NBCU into a new private company which could merge with the Comcast’s content assets valued at $6 billion, including E! Entertainment channel, the Golf channel, and a group of regional sports networks. Comcast also would contribute $7 billion in cash in exchange for 51% economic control. GE would spin a significant amount of debt, $12 billion, into the new company of which GE would take 49% control. Poor Comcast recently had to deny one struggling Hollywood blog’s bullshit that a “deal was done” between itself and NBCU for the entire acquisition. Judging from the way Comcast’s stock price dropped like a rock that day because of the erroneous report, investors were not amused, and the blog has to quickly backtrack. The truth is there’s still “nothing imminent” and “no price yet” nor even any percentage locked.