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Vivendi may sell off its NBC U stake

Company has first window of opportunity in January

PARIS — Putting itself at the center of a new guessing game, Vivendi has said it may soon sever its last remaining ties with Hollywood via the sale of its 20% stake in NBC Universal — and then again, it may not.

In January the company will see its first window of opportunity to sell the stake, which it has held since selling Universal to GE in 2003 in a deal that created a media giant then estimated to be worth $43 billion.

If Vivendi doesn’t sell, it will have fresh opportunities to do so each year in January through 2011. GE can oblige Vivendi to sell the stake in May 2010.

Vivendi made no official comment Monday on statements by top brass Friday referring to an eventual sale of the stake.

In Barcelona for an investor conference Friday, Vivendi chief financial officer Jacques Espinasse had said enigmatically, “Is now the time to do it, in January 2007? We have the answer to that question, but I’m not going to give it today.”

At another investor forum in Paris on the same day, Vivendi chief exec Jean-Bernard Levy shed no further light. “We are asking ourselves what we will do with this 20%,” he said. “The question is being asked, Will we or will we not stay in NBC U?”

The NBC Universal rumor comes just a couple of weeks after it emerged that Vivendi was recently the subject of a $40 billion takeover offer from U.S. private equity firm KKR.

In Barcelona, Espinasse revealed that the approach from KKR was a joint bid with fellow private equity firm Permira to buy a 20% stake.

Levy said that KKR eventually pulled out of negotiations, saying it could not offer a significant premium to shareholders and that the deal “did not make sense.”

“The chapter is closed,” Levy said.

Espinasse scotched speculation that Vivendi may consider selling its majority stake in mobile telco SFR to minority shareholder Vodafone, saying, au contraire, that Vivendi would be a buyer for Vodafone’s stake.

“Clearly, we have the financial capability to acquire their stake of 44% if they wanted to sell, and we could do it at a fair price,” Espinasse said.

Vivendi’s share price closed down 0.87% at e29.75 ($38.15) on the Paris bourse Monday, down from its 52-week high of $39.27.

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