Inside Move: Friction talk heats up

Vivendi, Canal Plus toppers in rift

CANNES — Unofficial Vivendi sources Wednesday confirmed press reports about tension between Vivendi chief Jean Marie Messier and Canal Plus topper Pierre Lescure.

The friction comes at a time when a three-way merger with Universal’s parent company Seagram, creating one of the world’s biggest media groups, is due to go through next month.

“Canal Plus has a hard time accepting its loss of independence,” an informed source told Daily Variety. “But even before this deal, it was only a public perception that the group was independent. Since it upped its stake to 49% (last year), Vivendi has had effective control of the group.”

Vivendi confirmed that the pay TV group’s fledgling Internet subsidiary Canal Numedia will not fall under Lescure’s control within the film and TV arm of the new Vivendi Universal. When the merger goes through next month, Canal Numedia will be under the auspices of VivendiNet, a fully owned subsidiary of Vivendi Universal’s Web unit headed by Phillipe Germond, according to the terms of a shareholders agreement signed in June.

The French daily Le Monde on Wednesday claimed that last month, Messier had almost succeeded in ousting Lescure over the Canal Numedia issue, until Lescure backed down.

In what official sources are insisting is a coincidence, Alex Berger, once described as Lescure’s right-hand man, resigned as head of Canal Numedia recently, leaving Canal Plus last week.

While both Vivendi and Canal Plus were refusing to comment on the alleged rift between Messier and Lescure on Wednesday, a number of sources on both sides privately have confirmed that tensions are high between the two men — and it seems to be more than just cold feet before the wedding next month. (The deal with Seagram, announced in June, is expected to receive the European Commission’s greenlight on Oct. 13.)

On the Vivendi side, the perception is that Lescure has not come to terms with the fact that once Canal Plus is absorbed by Vivendi Universal, he will no longer be his own boss.

At Canal Plus, the impression is that Messier finds Lescure threatening. The Vivendi boss does not want to be outdone, it is suggested, by the charming and more media-savvy Lescure, who has his own power base in the shape of an army of loyal troops at Canal Plus.

At the Mipcom TV mart here Wednesday, in between the usual rounds of dealmaking, international media execs pondered the repercussions of Messier and Lescure’s alleged fallout, some clearly finding it hard to believe. But all anyone can do for now is guess.

For many, Lescure seems irreplaceable. But the old Canal Plus is about to disappear, and once the deal is done it might suit Vivendi’s chairman, not known for sentimentality in business matters, to make a clean sweep of things.

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