Shedding season has started at Viacom-Paramount. The media conglomerate has unloaded its 33% stake in basic-cable network Lifetime to its partners Capital Cities/ABC and Hearst Corp. for $ 317.6 million.
Among additional assets that could go on the block are Viacom’s cable systems , which reach 1.1 million subscribers, and other cable networks in which Viacom doesn’t own a majority stake, such as USA Networks and Comedy Central.
Tele-Communications Inc. — the nation’s largest cable operator — confirmed Tuesday that it has had talks with Viacom, but a spokesman would not say what the talks involved.
The asking price for the cable systems is said to be more than $ 2 billion.
Ironically, TCI is the target of an antitrust suit filed by Viacom last fall.
Viacom-Paramount chairman Sumner Redstone got top dollar for Lifetime. According to Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Jessica Reif, CapCities and Hearst paid 20 times cash flow for Viacom’s stake in Lifetime, which reaches 59 million cable households. The three had been partners in the service since its launch 10 years ago.
Disposal of the cable network stakes will be welcomed by Wall Street in light of the $ 10 billion debt Viacom has taken on to acquire Paramount.
Additional cash may also be needed in light of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. chairman Wayne Huizenga’s change of heart on Viacom’s buyout offer for the homevideo giant. The two companies are still in talks on the merger with a Blockbuster shareholder vote set for May 24.
Through Par, the merged company owns 50% of USA Networks, whose holdings include USA and the Sci-Fi Channel. MCA, which owns the other 50%, would contractually be the likely buyer. Viacom also owns 50% of cable web Comedy Central, of which partner Time Warner would love to control. Viacom is also said to be looking at selling off Par’s five theme parks, according to a high-level company source.
Now may also be the opportune time for Viacom to consider selling off its TV stations.
Not including the Paramount stations — which are needed to launch a fifth network — Viacom owns five network affiliates. Over the last six months, the TV station trading marketplace has picked up — especially for affiliates — so Viacom is in a position to get top dollar for its stations.
Not for sale (yet) is Viacom’s wholly owned MTV Networks, including the musicvid channel, VH-1 and Nickelodeon.
Viacom CEO Frank Biondi had wanted to acquire the remaining two-thirds of Lifetime, but CapCities and Hearst weren’t interested.
“We have determined that a minority interest in the network does not fit into our strategic objectives,” Redstone said in a statement. That could also be the case with Viacom and Par’s non-controlling interest in the other cable networks, especially since partners MCA and Time Warner have shown no interest in selling their stakes to Viacom.
MCA, in fact, could consider legal action to wrestle USA Networks away from Redstone. When Paramount and MCA launched the company, both signed a non-compete clause that prohibits either of the parties from owning another general entertainment network.
USA is the top-rated basic cable network, with gross advertising revenue at an estimated $ 300 million for 1993 and subscriber revenues of $ 160 million. Net revenue has been estimated at more than $ 400 million with cash flow of almost $ 90 million.
Oppenheimer’s Reif said USA would likely sell at 15 times cash flow, meaning that Viacom-Paramount’s stake could be worth about $ 675 million.
Another reason why both Viacom and MCA want USA is because the cable web has become a valuable outlet for Paramount and MCA reruns. MCA and Paramount shows on USA include “Major Dad” and “Wings,” respectively. As of late, though, that formula hasn’t worked as well; USA posted a $ 78 million write-off in the third quarter because of poor ratings for the shows.