Exec gives Lescure, Canal Plus 2-year deadline

PARIS — Vivendi U chief Jean-Marie Messier has tacitly given Pierre Lescure’s Canal Plus Group management team two years to shape up or ship out.

On the one hand, Messier said at last week’s Vivendi Universal news conference in Paris that the struggling Euro pay TV group had pledged to wipe out €500 million ($437.2 million) in negative cash flow in two years. But in an interview with French economic daily La Tribune on Friday, the media mogul’s tone was more confrontational.

“A situation whereby Canal Plus has generated a negative cash flow of €500 million a year is not normal,” Messier complained. “The management has a duty to make it contribute to (the consolidated) result in the two coming years.”

Asked what would happen if the Euro operation failed to meet those objectives, Messier replied: “There is a management team at Canal Plus with Pierre Lescure at its head, responsible and answerable for the results. (The management team) has the responsibility and the means — with all the implications that that involves.”

Indeed, with Barry Diller now heading Vivendi U’s Stateside media ops, industry observers in Paris note that Lescure has quietly returned to spending much more time in his old European stomping ground, along with other Canal Plus Group execs who’ve reduced their to-ing and fro-ing between Europe and Hollywood.

Back in France, chief operating officer Denis Olivennes is now in operational charge of the Canal Plus Group, but “there is more than enough to keep both (Olivennes and Lescure) busy, and together they make a good team,” commented one industryite.

While Olivennes doesn’t balk at imposing the cuts necessary for the group to meet its financial objectives, Lescure is still very much the group’s figurehead and guardian of its identity, capable of building morale among the troops and giving vital pointers in areas where his judgment is uncontested, as in the recent appointment of Dominique Farrugia as head of Gallic feevee Canal Plus.

In contrast to the mistrusted Messier, Lescure also continues to be popular in the wider French media biz. At France’s recent Cesars ceremony, Lescure ranked prominently among the front-row VIPs thanked for their support of Gallic cinema.

But as Messier’s comments last week spelled out, an uphill battle lies ahead.

The Canal Plus Group’s top priorities include Italy, where antitrust authorities are dragging their heels over the planned merger of its satellite platform Telepiu, responsible for more than two-thirds of the group’s negative cash flow last year, according to Messier, with rival platform Stream.

Meanwhile at home in France, the group must further slash programming costs at its flagging Gallic pay TV channel Canal Plus while investing in the next generation of digital decoders, 400,000-500,000 of which must be deployed over the next two years under current objectives.

Messier also is keen to see a new content and channels partnership forged with John Malone’s Liberty Media, former shareholder in Canal Plus’ theme channel subsid Multithematiques “to create Europe’s No. 1 channel entity.”

In the U.S., he said the priority was the “integration and internal growth of Vivendi Universal Entertainment under the helm of Barry Diller.” In stock market terms, the integration should be completed by April.

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