High anxiety amid Canal Plus showdown

Battle lines are being drawn between French pay TV service Canal Plus and parent company Vivendi Universal as the April 24 Vivendi U shareholders meeting in Paris draws closer.

Canal Plus chief exec Pierre Lescure told union reps Monday that he will resign if Vivendi U topper Jean-Marie Messier tries to block his choice of a new deputy to replace Denis Olivennes, who quit abruptly Friday.Meanwhile, an embattled Messier will ask that the board not award him stock options this year unless the company’s share price rises to $52.80 by September. Vivendi also said Monday that members of the firm’s executive committee had decided unanimously to reinvest their 2001 bonuses in Vivendi U shares after the April 24 shareholder’s meeting.

Olivennes resigned as chief operating officer of Canal Plus and a member of Vivendi U’s exec committee in apparent protest at Messier’s leadership. One high level source told Daily Variety that Olivennes had quit to make it politically impossible for Messier to fire Lescure before next week’s shareholder meeting.

Olivennes attended Monday’s meeting with union reps alongside Lescure. According to one staffer, he said he resigned because of Messier’s double-dealing with the Canal Plus management. Olivennes claimed that Canal Plus had met performance targets set by Messier, despite the Vivendi U topper’s public insistence to the contrary.

Lescure made it clear that he will be the one to choose Olivennes’ successor and that Messier will not impose a replacement on him or the company.

Resignation possible

“Lescure said that he will meet Messier later this week, that Messier would propose somebody to be No. 2, and that Lescure would propose somebody else. If they didn’t agree, then Lescure would have to resign,” one union rep told Daily Variety. “He didn’t exactly seem angry, just firm.”

Lescure explained that he appoints replacements to the company’s five-member board, of which Olivennes was a member, in accordance with the charter Messier signed with France’s Conseil Superieur de L’Audiovisuel at the time of the Vivendi U-Canal Plus merger. Messier must approve the choice, however.

What had once seemed a viable working relationship between Lescure and Messier seems to have degenerated into open antipathy. Lescure told union reps that he still believed in the merger between Canal Plus and Vivendi but that he no longer sees eye to eye with Messier.

In different directions

As Messier boarded a plane from the U.S. to Paris Monday, Lescure boarded one from Paris to Spain.

Lescure has also cancelled his trip to Cannes, where he was to host a party tonight for the feevee’s prestige show, “The Lights of Brindisi,” about the problem of immigration in Europe, co-produced by all the Canal European affiliates.

Meanwhile, a report has given Messier only an 80% chance of survival amid calls from one of France’s most powerful unions for his resignation and a brouhaha over stock options.

“The astronomical debt of Vivendi Universal in 2001, s13.6 billion ($12 billion), is the catastrophic result of a capitalist system that allows a sorcerer’s apprentice to drive us toward political suicide. We ask for Jean-Marie Messier’s resignation without indemnity,” France’s third largest union, Force Ouvriere, said in a press release.

A report released last week by an analyst with French bank Credit Lyonnais said that Messier had a 20% chance of being ousted at the annual meeting. On the heels of the uproar, Vivendi U shares, which have already slumped 40% this year, fell Friday to their lowest levels since 1997.

Stock option stuck

Messier has been pushing Vivendi shareholders to agree to a billion-euro stock option proposal. But execs and shareholder activists found the proposal unfair and untenable, as it would allow certain execs to make a profit from Vivendi U’s woes, while diluting shareholders’ stocks.

Messier has backed a plan that dedicates 5% of the company’s equity to stock options for execs, insisting that to retain talent in the creative industries, he has to reward people properly, especially the U.S. staff that has different pay expectations than their European counterparts.

In related news, a Californian court will Thursday hear a request by Canal Plus Technologies to speed up a potential $1 billion digital television piracy lawsuit against a unit of News Corp., the two companies confirmed Monday.

Middleware manufacturer Canal Plus Technologies filed a complaint against News Corp. unit NDS Group last month alleging it had counterfeited its smart-card software, which protects access to digital TV content. Canal Plus Technologies said the practice may have damaged it to the tune of $1 billion.

(Liza Klaussmann contributed to this report.)

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