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There’s Smoke, But No One Fired at Universal

Something is up at NBC-Universal, but exactly what is a Hollywood chess game.With juicy items showing up in the media and my own phone ringing with talk about Vivendi and the “put” it has at GE, the waters are being stirred for a reason.   But what?   If NBC-Universal is not being sold (and […]

Something is up at NBC-Universal, but exactly what is a Hollywood chess game.
With juicy items showing up in the media and my own phone ringing with talk about Vivendi and the “put” it has at GE, the waters are being stirred for a reason.

 

But what?

 

If NBC-Universal is not being sold (and I’m assured by multiple people that no one’s kicking the tires), maybe someone on the inside wants it to be sold.

Or maybe someone on the outside wants to sow dissension at a time when the TV network is in fourth place, and the usually-profitable movie studio is having a rough time.

But something is definitely up. In November, Vivendi has the right to demand that GE pay it the cash value of its 20% of the company – a “put” that was part of the sale back in 2004.

This means that GE would have to come up with something like $4-$5 billion in cash at an inopportune time and in an opportune economy to pay off this stakeholder, or see that piece of the company put up for sale elsewhere.

And why does that mean Vivendi might want to buy NBC-Universal? Didn’t the French water company just sell the studio after an outcome that led to the ouster of the CEO Jean Marie Messier? Am I dreaming?

For the record, Vivendi has the ‘put’ right every November and hasn’t exercised it.
But the current talk may be related to a new report that Vivendi is interested in buying the African operations of Kuwit’s Zain Group, a mobile operator.

The cash for that estimated $8-$9 billion deal would have to come from somewhere, hence the roiling rumors that they might exercise the NBC-Uni put.

But from there, the rumors are taking a leap to Vivendi’s interest in buying NBC-Universal, on the presumption that the consumer giant has grown tired of its foray into entertainment.

According to one report, Vivendi is being pushed by Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, who is angling for Vivendi to buy the studio and let him run it. The studio’s value has dropped in the past year or two (as has everyone’s, everywhere), from an estimated $50 billion to an estimated $33 billion, I’m told by knowledgeable executives.

Adding to the rumor stew, all the relevant players were in the same place over the past few days. Vivendi CEO Jean-Bernard Levy was in Sun Valley at Herb Allen’s annual conference. So was GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt, and NBC-Universal’s Jeff Zucker and Ron Meyer.

That’s not all. The gossip mill goes on about dissension between Zucker and Meyer, and about axes that may or may not be about to fall at the studio. 

So far it’s smoke but no fire. Meyer is one of the most stable figures in modern Hollywood history; he’s been running the studio for 14 years under no less than five different bosses (if you count Barry Diller). I don’t believe that “Land of the Lost” can erase all of that.

NBC-Universal spokeswoman Allison Gollust said to all this: “There’s absolutely no tension” between Zucker and Meyer. “It’s simply not the case, and they’re both on the record stating it.”

For the moment, nothing is particularly clear. And the weekend opening of “Bruno” – which performed well but didn’t hit it out of the park – didn’t do much to influence matters one way or the other.

I say on this one: stay tuned.