Diller’s back with QVC stake

Barry Diller is back in business.

After months of speculation, the former chairman of Fox Inc. has taken a major stake in QVC Network Inc., a leading home-shopping cable channel, for $ 25 million.

Move would make Diller the logical successor to chairman Joseph Segel, who retires next month.

With these moves, Diller will likely transform the current cable television landscape, according to analysts.

As an innovative programmer and driving force behind the creation of Fox Broadcasting, Diller believes that digital technology that will create an explosion of new cable channels offering everything from pay-per-view to transaction services.

Diller left Fox last February, claiming he wanted to have an equity position in any venture he was involved in.

Now, he’s wheeling a cart through the $ 2.2 billion annual cable home-shopping market, which is available in homes of 7 million customers.

Diller joins partners Liberty Media and Comcast Corp., which owned approximately 53.2% of QVC prior to the transaction, and Time Warner Inc.

Liberty, the largest stakeholder, is the recently formed spinoff from Tele-Communications Inc., the nation’s biggest cablecaster.

Diller bought 833,000 shares at $ 30 apiece, but will also receive a package that includes 160,000 of restricted common and 6 million more in options at an exercise price above his original purchase price.

The stock closed up $ 3.125 to $ 33.785 on a normal volume of trading. Liberty gained $ 2 to $ 25, while Comcast lost 25 cents to $ 18.625 and TCI was flat at $ 21.375.

At Tuesday’s special board meeting, QVC directors also approved a 10-year consulting agreement with Segel, and voted to retain Michael Boyd as president and chief operating officer.

Comcast president Brian Roberts was elated: “Comcast hasn’t participated in programming before. This is a dawning of a new era, where there will be 250 channels, new programming and creative expansion. We’re going to build the highway — the new network of the 1990s.”

Diller, 50, made his purchase in the West Chester, Pa.-based cable programmer through his Arrow Investments Inc., a corporation he set up in 1985.

“I believe we are at the very beginning curve of the home shopping industry and am wildly enthusiastic about playing a role in that future,” Diller said in a prepared statement. He was unavailable for comment.

Indeed, Wall Street sees Diller as playing a key part in defining what the future of home shopping is.

“If Diller is investing, to me it’s a much bigger story than home shopping,” said Jessica Reif, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York. “This entity will be what the cable industry uses to expand into a la carte services. This will be the vehicle to exploit pay-per-view.”

Another piece of the puzzle may be the merging of QVC into the larger shopping channel, Home Shopping Network Inc., which has 68 million viewers (Daily Variety, Dec. 8).

HSN boasts a sophisticated phone system with 23,000 inbound lines, to handle customers orders. QVC, with 41 million viewers, is gushing an annual cash flow of $ 150 million.

The two tele-shopping companies had appeared to be on the brink of a merger earlier this year, but the deal fell apart. A marriage may still happen, since Liberty announced Monday it is buying control of HSN for $ 152 million.

The pairing, according to Hanifen, Imhoff analyst John Field, would provide a good platform for “Diller to lead the company into new businesses.”

Such a platform could be made possible, since TCI is embracing the conversion of its channels to digital form, which will multiply the number 10-fold.

As for programming, Diller’s extensive entertainment connections will be a gold mine. A year ago, Diller shocked the film community by suggesting cable be used for pay-per-view showing of a movie before theatrical release. If that’s to happen, Diller still has work to do.

Selling items over cable isn’t small change. QVC, which stands for Quality, Value and Convenience, sprang to life in 1986 with the backing of Comcast. For the first half, ended July 31, QVC earned $ 6.6 million.

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