GE, Vivendi reach deal on NBC U stake

20 percent stake reportedly bought for $5.8 billion

The table is set for Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal.

Word surfaced late Monday that Vivendi and General Electric have come to terms on a price of $5.8 billion for Vivendi’s 20% stake in NBC Universal. Agreement removes the biggest hurdle standing in the way of GE’s plan to sell 51% of NBC U to Comcast. But insiders cautioned that the Comcast-GE deal will still require a few more days of heavy-duty talks and lawyering to finalize the deal terms now that the Vivendi portion of the transaction is set.

Reps for GE, Vivendi and Comcast declined comment.

Sources in the know said that, barring any last-minute surprises, a final agreement between GE and Comcast could be unveiled by week’s end or early next week. Comcast is expected to fork over $4 billion-$6 billion in cash and contribute its cable networks to NBC U, which will become a joint venture between GE and Comcast but controlled by the Philadelphia-based cable giant. The pending deal also calls for NBC U to take on about $9 billion in debt from GE as part of the sale. GE will have the right to sell more of its stake to Comcast over a seven-year period.

Vivendi’s accord with GE came after weeks of talks during which the French telco was said to be coy about its plans for its 20% hunk of the Peacock. Under the deal GE struck with Vivendi for Universal Studios in 2004, Vivendi had an annual option to negotiate the sale of its stake to GE or put it up for an IPO. When Comcast entered the NBC U picture with GE, the proposed takeover provided a clear exit path for Vivendi, whose CEO Jean-Bernard Levy had already declared NBC U to be a “noncore” asset for the company.

Still, Vivendi execs bargained hard at an advantageous moment to secure the highest price at a time when GE needed its cooperation to proceed with the larger plan for NBC U. Last month, Vivendi chief financial officer Philippe Capron raised eyebrows by telling Bloomberg News, “We could just say no” to the sale. Under the 2004 deal, Vivendi had an annual three-week window to trigger its option; this year that window opened Nov. 15. The agreement came after a face-to-face meeting last week in Paris between Levy and GE chief exec Jeffrey Immelt, the New York Times reported.

If the NBC U transaction is completed, it will vault Comcast into Hollywood’s big leagues with a studio, a broadcast net and a clutch of powerhouse cable channels, including USA, Syfy, Bravo, E!, CNBC, MSNBC, G4 and Oxygen, plus a handful of regional sports cablers. Comcast is already the nation’s largest cable operator with nearly 24 million subscribers in 39 states, but it has made no secret of its desire to muscle into the content side of the biz. Company launched an unsolicited takeover bid for Disney in 2004 that was fended off by the Mouse House and frowned on by investors, exacting a heavy toll on Comcast’s share price.

This time, Comcast has found a willing seller in GE, and the market reaction has been less severe, though some top Wall Street analysts remain skeptical.

Comcast shares closed Monday at $14.66, compared to $16.88 on Sept. 30, the day that word of its talks with GE first surfaced.

Once GE and Comcast get to the handshake, it’s likely to take as much as a year for the pact to receive regulatory approval. Rivals like John Malone’s Liberty Media and media watchdog orgs are already complaining about the prospect of so much cable programming consolidated under one roof.

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