NEW YORK — Barry Diller has grabbed headlines as a media mogul and a guru of Internet and electronic commerce. His latest claim to fame is less glamorous: A fly in the ointment for a succession of CEOs at three big companies, Seagram, Vivendi and GE/NBC.

You could say Diller’s connection to media moguldom “is hanging by an equity thread,” jokes one Wall Streeter who has followed Diller for years.

When and if he severs ties to Universal, Diller, 61, will be firmly planted in the world of online mortgage brokers and Internet travel sites. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. His company, InterActive Corp., has a high-flying stock and has earned him many millions of dollars.

“Maybe he’s found peace and contentment,” says one industryite.

A brilliant (for Barry) deal cooked up with much-maligned former Viv U CEO Jean-Marie Messier gave Diller a web of interests in Vivendi Universal Entertainment. As Vivendi and GE seek to clinch a deal for VUE, Vivendi is under pressure to settle accounts with Diller before the Universal assets change hands.

But they already tried that.

Months of talks between Viv topper Jean-Rene Fourtou and Diller crumbled into animosity and legal wrangling. Most observers think NBC will inherit Diller along with U, and that Bob Wright will be next on Diller’s dance card.

“Diller loves Bob,” note several Wall Streeters.

And Diller publicly praised the deal as a key step for NBC, although privately he’s always expressed an aversion to the pricey pic business. It’s not clear if he thinks the pact is as advantageous for Vivendi, which was offered lots more pure cash in hand from other bidders.

“It’s always like that. Diller will start out saying wonderful, glowing things. They will go into talks. Diller will ask for some things and NBC will say no, and Diller’s comments will turn caustic and critical,” says one person close to Vivendi.

While GE and Vivendi both want a negotiated settlement with Diller, as of Sept. 4, Diller’s InterActive Corp. said, “We are presently in discussions with no one.”

Diller’s position seems to be that he’ll take cash if he can get what he thinks he’s owed; otherwise, he’s content to tag along.

While Diller has told InterActive Corp. shareholders he’d like to transform the VUE stake into something more liquid — like cash — he’s told others he likes the VUE holding, which “ages like fine wine.”

In 18 years, he’s entitled to a payout of about $2.5 billion. The big mystery is how much he’s entitled to if NBC wants him out now.

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