Vivendi chairman Vincent Bollore gave a hint of some big plays coming down the pipelines with the confirmation that its pay TV division Canal Plus is engaged in talks with Qatari-owned beIN Sports over an exclusive distribution agreement. The move, if approved by anti-trust authorities in France, would give Canal Plus execs a much-needed revenue boost while also giving beIN Sports better carriage in France.
The two companies had up until this point been fierce rivals. By aggressively snapping up major soccer, tennis and rugby rights from 2012 onwards, beIN had positioned itself as a big rival to the French pay-TV giant, potentially even an existential one, as sliding Canal Plus subscriber numbers were behind an exec cull at the company last summer. Canal Plus chief exec Rodolphe Belmer, chairman Bertrand Meheut and a number of other execs were all shown the door in quick succession. That was largely due to the board’s dissatisfaction with their efforts to stem the tide of falling revenues, a situation highlighted by the uncharacteristically blunt Vivendi statement.
“The six Canal Plus channels have been losing money in France for the last four years,” said the Vivendi statement. “Vivendi cannot on a long-term basis continue to finance the losses of Canal Plus channels in France.”
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For beIN, which has virtually closed its deal to acquire 100% of Miramax from Colony Capital and the Qatar Investment Authority, the Canal Plus move is as much political as it is commercial. The Qatari-owned company, the precursor to Al Jazeera Sports, would not want to be seen as the primary architect in the demise of a French institution such as Canal Plus.
Vivendi has also confirmed it has launched a hostile takeover for French vidgame company Gameloft, founded by France’s Guillemot brothers, who also own Assassin’s Creed maker Ubisoft, another Vivendi target. Vivendi offered 6 Euros per share for Gameloft, repping a 50% premium over the share price when Vivendi started building up its stake in the company last October. As of Monday, Gameloft shares had risen to 6.64 Euros per share, up from its 5.48 Euro closing price prior to news of Vivendi’s intention.
Vivendi also owns just under 30% of Gameloft. The acquisition move follows a period of Vivendi divesting assets such as telcos SFT and Maroc Telecom, as well as video game publisher Activision Blizzard, to focus on its core media assets Canal + and Universal Music Group. Those moves left Vivendi sitting on a war chest of billions of dollars with which to build the business.
Vivendi execs are seriously exploring the viability of launching their own OTT service across Europe, in essence becoming a rival to Netflix. That would be a game-changer if it comes to pass, given the deep pockets, extensive libraries and distribution network Vivendi already boasts. To Vivendi’s advantage is the strategic relationships it has now with telcos Telefonica in Spain and Telecom Italia in Italy, in which it now owns a 20.5% stake. Last year, Vivendi divested its Brazilian telco GVT to Telefonica, allowing it to become the leading shareholder in Telecom Italia. The ability to leverage those assets, particularly in terms of offering consumers quad-play services across the UK, France, Germany and now Spain and Italy would give Vivendi a formidable platform with which to take on Netflix, should it choose to move forward with that strategy.
Vivendi finalised its acquisition of online video channel Dailymotion last June, with the digital company presenting a ready-made platform on which to expand into OTT delivery.
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