Drama heightened as Messier enlists watchdogs

PARIS — The battle between Jean-Marie Messier and Pierre Lescure intensified Wednesday as the Vivendi Universal chairman and the ousted Canal Plus chief filed dueling complaints with regulators and sniped at each other over the airwaves.

Meanwhile, Messier called upon French broadcast watchdog Conseil Superieur d’Audiovisual to investigate the dramatic events of Tuesday evening when Lescure took to the airwaves to insult Messier and urged viewers to drop their Canal Plus subscriptions.

It’s “extremely shocking that the president of a TV station would use the channel for his own personal ends,” Viv U said.

A crowd of Canal Plus staffers rallied outside Viv U headquarters in support of Lescure as union leader Gerard Chollet urged co-workers to fight. “It’s not only Pierre Lescure’s head we have to save, it’s all our heads,” he said.

Lescure also complained to the CSA his firing was illegal and without cause. The agency is slated to hear formally his complaint today.

Stateside, industry players, fond as they are of Lescure, marveled at the fuss and predicted Messier is likely to weather the storm.

A Viv U exec in France said the board, which met Wednesday to review the management changes at Canal, will stand behind its chairman.

The public furor “epitomizes the concern that the company is slipping away from the French,” said one Wall Streeter. “It’s a tremendous collision of cultures,” even though Messier is French.

Lescure, who helped found Canal and transform French TV, is seen as a visionary, particularly in France and Europe.

Messier, who worked at the French finance ministry and was an investment banker at Lazard Freres, is sometimes described as a deal junkie with a big ego. But he may still turn Canal Plus around.

“Messier is flawed. He needs to be more of an operator. But I think he knows that and he’ll fix it,” said one U insider.

The protest by Canal Plus employees followed Viv U’s announcement that Lescure had been replaced by TF1 general manager Xavier Couture. The appointment and Lescure’s ouster was further cemented by a 3-2 vote of Canal’s supervisory board Wednesday.

Lescure arrived for the meeting on foot, cheered on by supporters.

As protests continued, Viv U defended its position.

“The departure of Pierre Lescure was not personal,” company said in a statement. “It was solely a monetary decision. Last year, for the first time in 17 years, Canal Plus lost subscribers. If Canal Plus was not supported by Vivendi Universal, its financial situation would be extremely precarious.”

Regulator’s position

After an emergency CSA meeting Wednesday, prexy Dominique Baudis told journalists that he wanted to clarify the facts surrounding Messier’s firing of Lescure and swift hiring of Couture.

Baudis said Canal’s broadcast license could revoked if there are certain substantial changes in management or financial structure.

The CSA, he added, still awaits Messier’s response to a request last January that Viv U reveal what percentage of its stock is held by non-European shareholders.

Messier may face political hurdles as presidential elections loom. Rivals French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin both said they will seek to protect Gallic cinema and Gallic ownership of Canal Plus.

MK2 topper Marin Karmitz, prexy of the National Federation of French Distributors, told Daily Variety: “The CSA must tighten the surveillance around Canal Plus and make sure they respect their accords with the film industry. They must also be very attentive to who possesses the capital of Canal Plus.”

Karmitz said Lescure’s firing illustrates Messier’s lack of comprehension about how the TV industry functions. “Messier confuses the water distribution industry with the audiovisual industry, where a channel’s human element and talent is preeminent,” Karmitz said.

Analysts see bright side

A number of financial analysts in Europe saw Messier’s actions in a different, more positive light.

Mehra Meh, a media analyst with Williams de Broe in Europe, said: “Operationally, you have a company that has been making losses for five years and a chief executive officer who had been there for some 20 years. Removing him to bring about a strategic change was almost a no-brainer.”

For his part, Lescure blasted Messier on French radio. And another rally on his behalf, endorsed by the first deputy mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is planned for Saturday.

(Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this story.)

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