Chiefs at confab upbeat

Ad rebound expected by execs

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told an exclusive gathering of entertainment executives Wednesday that the media business is poised for a major turnaround.

In a speech at an annual conference sponsored by the Allen & Co. investment bank, Redstone said advertising spending is coming back after a long slump.

“The media industry is on the threshold of breakthrough performance,” Redstone said, briefing reporters on his speech as he emerged from the conference center. “We’re in for an advertising rebound. … I’m very optimistic about Viacom, but also for the industry.”

Viacom, whose holdings include CBS, MTV and Nickelodeon, gets about half its revenues from advertising, a relatively high figure. As a result, Viacom could benefit even more than its peers from an advertising recovery.

Redstone was one of dozens of top media execs and investors converging on this mountain resort for the annual weeklong conference, now in its 21st year.

Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Miramax studio chief Harvey Weinstein were among those attending. Including family members, about 500 people were expected to attend over the course of the week.

The meetings were closed to reporters, and many executives declined to be interviewed about the proceedings. But Redstone said there was a “general feeling of optimism” among the executives this year.

One of the main topics at this year’s gathering was the impending sale of Vivendi Universal’s entertainment assets. The bidding process is in full swing as the French conglom seeks to sell the Universal film and TV studio and several cable channels.

Viacom, known to be one of the bidders, is most interested in Vivendi’s cable nets, which include the USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel, Redstone said. Viacom, which already owns the Paramount movie studio, is not interested in the Universal film studio, he said.

Redstone declined to go into detail about the bidding but said Viacom would be “disciplined” and “price-sensitive” in its dealings. “We won’t worry if we don’t get it. There will be other opportunities,” Redstone said.

Other contenders for the Vivendi assets include General Electric Co.’s NBC; John Malone, the chairman of Liberty Media; and Edgar Bronfman Jr., who formerly controlled the Universal properties as head of Seagram Co. before the company joined up with Vivendi.

Viacom, which recently bought out the other half of the Comedy Central cable channel from AOL Time Warner Inc., would also be interested in acquiring CNN if AOL Time Warner ever put it up for sale, Redstone said.

However, Redstone said it is highly unlikely that CNN will ever be on the block. Ted Turner, the CNN founder and former vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, “would have a heart attack,” Redstone said.

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