Former VP plans to launch liberal cable net

Vivendi Universal and NBC are on track to meet their self-imposed deadline and sign their definitive merger agreement today, enabling the creation of showbiz’s newest integrated media conglom.

Viv U CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou was due in Gotham with the goal of putting ink to paper today followed by an announcement Friday. However, the deal will not formally close until the first quarter of 2004 following obligatory regulatory approvals.

NBC and GE’s due diligence team had been scouring documents at Universal until last weekend. And despite rumors of some discrepancies over U’s international film and TV revenues, no substantive adjustments to the original deal are foreseen.

Under the agreement outlined just after Labor Day, NBC will pay Vivendi $3.8 billion in cash, assume some $1.6 billion in debt and offer a 20% equity stake in the new entity.

GE topper Jeffrey Immelt, who met with Fourtou in Paris earlier this week, told a French newspaper that he would not recommend an IPO of the new NBC Universal combo in the short term.

Gore group buying NWI

But it was another Vivendi deal that was generating buzz Wednesday, this one involving former vice president Al Gore’s plans to launch a liberal cable network. Under the proposed arrangement, Gore and a group of investors would buy U’s tiny Newsworld Intl. (NWI), a cable channel that reaches less than 20 million viewers nationwide.

Insiders say Gore and Democratic fund-raiser Joel Hyatt, founder of Hyatt Legal Services, have raised the $70 million needed to seal the deal with Vivendi. Gotham media investor Steve Rattner, topper of Quadrangle Group, also is said to be involved in the venture.

Gore and other Democrats have long expressed frustration at the immense success and proliferation of ultraconservative talk radio hosts. Gore’s people have declined all comment on any plans to acquire NWI and develop liberal-leaning programming.

Bundling ads

Considering the small reach of NWI — its biggest carriage agreement is with DirecTV — any new owners would face a tough task in expanding the channel’s aud. Insiders say Gore’s group is exploring the possibility of partnering with a more established network so that ad sales might be bundled.

NBC and parent General Electric aren’t likely to be interested, considering NBC has two cable news channels, MSNBC and CNBC.

NWI, which carries international news produced locally in various countries and shows local newscasts from abroad, is part of Universal Television and was previously owned by Barry Diller.

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