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AAC coy on merger talk

Possible suitors include BCE, Quebecor

TORONTO — Alliance Atlantis Communications is getting its finances squared away and has plans to grow, both in Canada and globally, president and CEO Michael MacMillan told shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting in Toronto Tuesday.

With the recent flurry of media mergers and takeovers in the Great White North — such as the Quebecor-Videotron, CanWest-Hollinger, and BCE-Thomson deals — there is plenty of speculation that Alliance Atlantis could be next.

“AAC is not only a target, there could be a number of buyers,” said one Toronto-based analyst who follows the company. He suggested BCE and Quebecor as possible suitors.

CanWest cashes out

Winnipeg-based web CanWest Global would have been in the running, but the company sold its 20% interest in AAC just as the general meeting got under way Tuesday morning.

“We made some return on our investment in Alliance Atlantis, and it was presumably no longer perceived to have a strategic importance to the company,” said CanWest Global VP of corporate affairs Geoffrey Elliot.

MacMillan was coy about a potential merger or acquisition partner or any deal that might be in the works. He pointed out that AAC was an early leader in the consolidation trend when Alliance and Atlantis, two of Canada’s largest production companies, came together to form Alliance Atlantis two years ago.

Deal was Canada’s best-kept secret until the day of its announcement, MacMillan told reporters, and if AAC was in merger or takeover talks itself, that cat, too, would stay in the bag. “A lot of folks see us as a (takeover) target,” he said, “but I think there’s more possibilities than simply being a buyer or a seller. We’re a grower.”

Cutting red ink

Attendees were given a rundown of the company’s fiscal 2000 performance plus a list of balance-sheet incentives intended to raise cash to reduce debt. Move could foretell a deal in the works, or it could be a garden-variety stock-boosting strategy.

Either way, said the analyst, “It’s positive, it’s good, it looks like they’re getting their house in order, and they’re doing the right things.” The analyst’s target for the stock is about C$30 ($20.40).

Alliance Atlantis Communications is a Toronto-based TV producer and broadcaster, as well as a creator and international distributor of features. It also has interests in 10 specialty channels.

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