Turner Deal Cooking…Producers Battle WGA

At least two entrepreneurial investors have approached Ted Turner with an offer to finance a buyout of Time Warner’s 19.4% stake in Turner Broadcasting Systems, as a way of clearing the path for Turner to buy a broadcast web, sources say.

Turner and John Malone – president of Turner’s other big shareholder, Tele-Communications Inc. – are well advanced in negotiations with TW about jointly purchasing the investment. But it’s possible that Turner and TCI plan to re-sell the shares to one of the two investors, who have not been identified.

TCI has the right of first refusal to buy TW’s stake, and both Malone and Turner have a crucial interest in keeping the shares in friendly hands. But until now it has not been clear how either Turner or TCI could finance the buyout of TW’s investment, which at current market prices is worth more than $1 billion.

Borrowing to finance the purchase seems out of the question, bankers say, given that the dividend income of the investment is negligible while the interest cost on the debt would be well over $100 million. The financing issue is particularly acute given Turner’s desperation to buy a network, a deal that would require at least a couple of billion dollars in cash as well.

One person close to the companies say two separate investors, who are said to include a deep-pocketed entrepreneurial type, think Turner would be a good fit with a network and want to be a partner in a purchase. Helping finance the buy-out of TW would be a way into the partnership.

Turner is hardly in a position to finance much of the purchase himself – or even through a stock buyback. TCI is in a better position, having just raised $350 million from the sale of equity and with more money coming in over the next few months from the sale of stock in its new international offshoot. But TCI has plenty of other demands on its coffers.

TW has indicated in the past a preference for swapping its Turner stake for a Turner asset, and it is possible the deal could be financed partly through an asset swap and partly with cash. TCI could even swap one of its cable programming interests with TW; the two have joint interests in properties like Court TV and the Sega Channel.

But people close to Turner and TCI question whether Turner wants Malone to increase his already substantial influence over the company. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Turner and Malone are committed to working together. One source says that with TW out of the way, many more joint deals are likely between the two companies.

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