Rumors say Liberty Media chief wants Noos

PARIS — John Malone is once again being touted as a possible savior of France’s ailing cable TV industry.

It’s not the first time the Paris rumor mill has thrown up Malone’s name as a candidate to acquire Noos, France’s biggest operator with 1.1 million subscribers, likely through his wholly owned UGC Europe cable company. But according to the latest gossip, the Liberty Media chief has his eye on France’s other big cable companies, too.

All told, they don’t amount to much, however, as French cable has developed at an escargot’s pace in the past 20 years. The biggest cable operators are Suez-owned Noos; Canal Plus subsid NC Numericable, which boasts 800,000 subscribers; and France Telecom with 850,000. None is profitable. There’s also UPC France, a subsid of UPC, with slightly more than half a million subscribers.

A recent change in the law may be behind Malone’s interest in a bunch of companies that have been unofficially up for sale for ages.

Recognizing that cable would never take off unless it was more attractive to investors, the French government last month lifted a rule forbidding a cable network to serve any more than 8 million people in any geographical area, such as the Paris region, which is covered by Noos.

The change in the law paves the way for cablers to grow their businesses or merge with other cablers.

But industryites were keeping their cool about the Malone rumor Wednesday. “Every so often his name crops up, but we are waiting for something more concrete,” said one.

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