Carlyle Group bids on Virgin

Talks are in the early stages

Private equity giant Carlyle Group is in talks to buy out U.K. cabler Virgin Media in a deal that would value the company at around $20 billion.

Virgin Media has tapped Goldman Sachs to prepare the company for a possible auction, according to a source familiar with the situation. Talks with the Washington, D.C.-based Carlyle Group are in the early stages, and Virgin Media is likely to draw other bidders if a sale process proceeds, the source cautioned.

Virgin Media’s largest shareholder is Virgin Group kingpin Richard Branson, who holds a 10.5% stake. The cable and wireless provider was rebranded Virgin Media earlier this year following the merger of Brit cable and telecom concerns NTL and Telewest. The company was approached earlier this year by Providence Equity Partners and other U.S. private equity players about a $15 billion bid (Daily Variety, May 22).

Nasdaq-traded Virgin Media has taken hits this year after getting into a highly publicized scuffle with News Corp.’s British Sky Broadcasting that led to Virgin’s cable platform dropping five BSkyB channels, including Sky One, after a fight over carriage fees. That cost Virgin Media cable customers as viewers lost access to “24,” “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Simpsons” and other hit shows.

Carlyle Group has a slew of cable- and telecom-related investments around the world, particularly in Europe and Asia. Its top execs include former Federal Communications Commission chief William Kennard.

A rep for Carlyle declined comment. Reps for U.K.-based Virgin Media could not be reached for comment late Sunday. Virgin Media shares were down 33¢ at close of trading Friday to $24.37.

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