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Friday, October 2, 2009

Comcast in deal talks with NBC Universal

Cable giant Comcast Corp. is kicking the tires of NBC Universal, according to people familiar with the situation.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator with almost 25 million subscribers, has been looking to increase its content holdings for several years. In NBC Universal it would get its hands on not only a big broadcast network and movie studio, but also several powerful cable channels, including USA, Syfy, CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo.

NBC parent General Electric has often denied that it is interested in selling its entertainment holdings. Of course, if history is any guide, Comcast doesn't necessarily wait for an invitation before making a play. Five years ago it made an unsuccessful run to buy Walt Disney Co. for $54 billion.

The price tag for NBC Universal would be substantially less than that. A recent analyst report from J.P. Morgan analyst Stephen Tusa valued NBC Universal at $30 billion to $35 billion. However, such a deal would likely be very complex because there would be huge tax implications for NBC Universal parent General Electric, which first bought NBC in 1986 for $6.5 billion.

That is still a pretty steep price tag for Comcast to swallow. The cable giant has a market cap of $48 billion and about $4 billion in cash so if it were to buy all of NBC Universal, it would be a highly leveraged transaction.

Speculation that GE may be looking to unload NBC Universal has heated up as of late in part because the French conglomerate Vivendi, which holds a 20% stake in the entertainment unit, may look to unload its interest before the end of the year. There have been questions raised as to whether GE -- which has first dibs on the Vivendi interest -- could muster the $4 billion - $5 billion needed to buy back the stake or whether another company such as cash-rich Time Warner or Comcast would step in and buy it.

Whether Comcast is making a serious run at all of NBC Universal outright or just in acquiring a stake in the company or forming a joint-venture remains to be seen.

In a statement, Comcast denied a report from industry website The Wrap that it had a deal to buy NBC Universal, but it declined to elaborate on any other talks it may be having with NBC Universal. A spokeswoman for NBC Universal declined to comment.

For Comcast, getting all or some of NBC Universal would give it programming assets to match its distribution clout. It currently only owns a handful cable networks including E! Entertainment Television, Versus, the Golf Channel, G4 and 10 regional sports networks. None of its cable networks have the commercial success of NBC's assets.

While NBC has lots of assets, many of its entertainment holdings are struggling. Its Universal Studios is in a slump at the box office and its management the NBC network is mired in fourth place in both viewers and demographics. It's big gamble this fall, putting Jay Leno on in prime time, has not delivered big ratings yet although it may prove to be a smart financial gamble. In the first half of 2009, NBC Universal made $1.6 billion on revenues of $7.5 billion. Its revenue accounts for less than 10% of General Electric Co.'s total revenue.

-- Joe Flint