Viacom is eyeing Vivendi for its cable, not assets


Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 12

Viacom Inc, the third-largest US media company, is interested in buying Vivendi Universal SA's cable channels, not all the French company's entertainment assets, president Mel Karmazin said.

"We have an interest in cable networks," Karmazin said in an interview with television journalist Charlie Rose at the Aspen Summit conference in Aspen, Colorado.

Viacom owns the top-rated CBS broadcast TV network, Paramount Pictures film studio, and the MTV and Comedy Central cable-TV channels.

Vivendi, which owns the USA and Sci Fi cable channels, has said it wants to sell its entertainment unit as a whole. Viacom chairman and chief executive officer Sumner Redstone has said he would like to own more cable networks.

Viacom isn't interested in buying Vivendi's Universal movie studio, music business or theme parks, Redstone told reporters last month.

Viacom's broadcasting competitors, including General Electric Co's NBC TV unit, also have said they want to buy Paris-based Vivendi's US cable networks.

Karmazin said NBC is the most probable buyer for Vivendi Universal Entertainment.

"It would sort of be a fit for GE," Karmazin said.

Vivendi and GE have stepped up talks aimed at merging the French company's US entertainment assets, including the Universal movie and TV studio, with NBC, and hope to reach agreement on the main terms before the Vivendi board meets on Aug. 26, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.

If broad agreement is reached by then, Vivendi's management will probably recommend to the board that it start exclusive talks with GE, the newspaper said.

Class B shares of Viacom rose US$0.80 to US$44.20 today in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The stock has risen 8.4 percent so far this year.

Vivendi fell US$0.21 to close at 15.09 euros in Paris.

Karmazin said he's not interested in taking over as chairman of Vivendi. "I hope Sumner Redstone is the chairman, the CEO of Viacom, until he's 110."

Redstone, 80, repeatedly has said he would like to own more cable networks because they are among the most profitable parts of the media business.

New York-based Viacom's cable unit, which includes the Nickelodeon, VH1 and BET TV channels, was the company's fastest growing business in the second quarter.

Operating profit at the cable unit climbed 33 percent to US$492.8 million while revenue rose 22 percent to US$1.35 billion.

Vivendi chief executive office Jean-Rene Fourtou has said he plans to sell assets for a total of 7 billion euros this year to help return the company's credit rating to investment grade.

Vivendi's debt is rated B1 at Moody's Investors Service, four levels below investment quality.

Fourtou joined Vivendi a year ago after his predecessor Jean-Marie Messier's US$77 billion buying spree brought the company near bankruptcy. He's pledged to sell a total of 16 billion euros by the end of next year.