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Three of Vivendi's Suitors Place Bids

At least one offer for the firm's Universal assets is said to be less than the $14 billion sought.

August 19, 2003|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Three of the original six suitors for Vivendi Universal's U.S. entertainment assets met Monday's deadline for second-round bids, but the company wouldn't say whether they reached its hotly debated minimum asking price of $14 billion.

As expected, John Malone's Liberty Media Corp. and a consortium headed by Vivendi Vice Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. submitted offers for Universal's movie studio, theme parks and TV businesses. The third bidder was General Electric Co.'s NBC, which has proposed a merger of assets, sources familiar with the proposals said.

The offers pose some stark choices for Paris-based Vivendi, which is trying to unload its U.S. operation to focus on its French-based telecom and pay-TV businesses.

Over the next week or so, the company's executives are expected to decide whether to accept cash now to pay down debt -- the main goal identified by Vivendi when it launched the much-watched auction this year -- or agree to a merger with NBC that could be lucrative in the long term but would give Vivendi little or no upfront cash and would postpone its desired exit from Hollywood.

A Vivendi spokesman Monday confirmed that Vivendi had received "proposals and confirmations from each of the parties interested in the VUE assets," but he wouldn't elaborate.

Representatives of NBC and Liberty also declined to comment.

Tod Hullin, a spokesman for Bronfman's group, was brimming with confidence. "Between us and NBC, they're going to have a clear choice," Hullin said. He declined to discuss the details of the Bronfman bid.

Top Vivendi executives had predicted that they would receive at least one offer that met their $14-billion minimum, which scared away three other suitors: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., cable giant Comcast Corp. and a group involving former 20th Century Fox owner Marvin Davis.

At least one of Monday's bids, Liberty's, came in below the asking price, a source familiar with the proposal said.

Vivendi executives have said they were optimistic they could reach a deal by Labor Day. But they also have said that if the proposals fell short, they would be ready to hold onto the assets and possibly prepare them for a public offering next year.

The company's board of directors will weigh the offers at an Aug. 26 meeting in Paris, company sources said.

Vivendi insiders and analysts believe NBC, with its stable, cautious management team, has the upper hand in negotiating a deal.

"It's NBC's to lose," one Vivendi Universal executive said Monday.

Each of the three offers has a strategic component centered around Universal's TV group, although the amount of cash involved varies widely.

NBC wants to combine its broadcast and cable networks -- including CNBC, Bravo and Telemundo -- with Universal's film and TV businesses.

Liberty Chairman Malone would combine Liberty's Starz Encore cable group with Universal's cable channels, which include USA, Sci Fi and Trio.

And Bronfman has proposed contributing Cablevision Systems Corp.'s American Movie Classics, We: Women's Entertainment and Independent Film Channel in his deal.

Bronfman has lined up backing from private equity firms Thomas H. Lee Partners and Blackstone Group, as well as a $9-billion commitment from a group headed by Wachovia Corp.

Times staff writer Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this report.

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