In just the past week, I’ve heard rumor after rumor about what may happen to NBC Universal because of the Vivendi put option coming due. One crazy rumor claimed Viacom and GE would merge Paramount and Universal — just the movie studios — into one company of best assets. (That was denied by insiders at both conglomerates.) Another saner rumor had Comcast buying Vivendi’s 20% stake in NBC Universal. (That seems within the realm of possibility, but unlikely, too.) Yet I can tell you that GE recently has been asking Universal for more and deeper financial info than ever before. And it’s all related to the Vivendi put option. 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. The conventional wisdom, as yet unconfirmed, is that Vivendi may decide to sell this year because it’s more interested in expanding into telcom than hanging onto a non-core asset like media. So all eyes were on Vivendi CEO Jean-Bernard Levy today when he spoke at the Goldman Sachs Communicopia media conference. Levy made mention of the improving economic situation for media. “Last year there was turmoil and we didn’t know where the market was going, and the advertising market was not in our favor. The next window is in a little more than two months, you will know more at that time,” he said coyly. “An IPO is possible, if we do exercise the put option we go and prepare for an IPO. Unless GE uses a pre-emption right and buys us out at a price. It can go that GE buys us out or at the end of several months the company goes public, assuming we do exercise. But you understand a decision has not been made.” Broadcasting and Cable at noon quoted one senior level executive at the Goldman conference as saying that the wide expectation is that Vivendi wants to “turn the paper into cash”. Last year, Levy also teased investors about its intentions, and did nothing. So why does Vivendi hang on? Because the dividend flow it receives from NBCU is “very good”. Vivendi’s option to sell a max $4 billion of NBCU shares runs from November 15th to the Friday of the first week of December. But GE can preempt it by buying back the stake which GE chief Jeff Immelt last year said he “would do in a heartbeat”. Vivendi obtained the stake in 2004 when it sold its Universal Studios, USA and SciFi Networks, and other media assets, to GE. Meanwhile, I hear GE is talking to analysts tomorrow. At least NBCU parent company’s stock price is rising dramatically this week.
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