Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts scores dream deal

Brian Roberts finally realized his Hollywood dream after the cable company he runs, Comcast, bought control of NBC Universal from General Electric in the megadeal announced Dec. 3.

Roberts, the Comcast chairman-CEO, had been in secret and not-so-secret negotiations since spring with GE chair Jeffrey Immelt to buy the network plus its cable and film assets.

Comcast will acquire a 51% controlling interest in NBC U from GE for $6.5 billion in cash plus the contribution of most of its cable channels and digital assets to the new NBC U.

GE will retain 49% of NBC U, and it will have the right to sell more of its stake back to Comcast over a seven-year period, starting 3½ years after the deal is completed.

NBC U will take on about $9.1 billion in debt to pay off GE. GE in turn has to pay off its former partner in NBC U, French telco Vivendi, whose decision in early December to sell back its 20% interest in the Peacock cleared the path for GE to seal the joint venture with the company that had pursued NBC U on and off for several years.

While Roberts and Immelt were the chief deal drivers, GE chief financial officer Keith Sherin and Comcast chief financial officer Michael Angelakis were essential engineers who worked together at times to keep the pact from unraveling.

The company vaulted from a medium-sized cable operator to No. 1, with nearly 24 million subscribers in 39 states, following its $72 billion purchase of AT&T’s cable systems in 2002. Two years later it launched an ill-fated hostile bid for Disney.

“With this transaction, I believe our company is strategically complete,” Roberts said in a conference call Dec. 3.

But it’s no time for Roberts to rest as GE and Comcast must now face government regulators, some of whom seem to be looking for a fight as solons face the first big media deal of the Obama administration — which has signaled a more rigorous enforcement of antitrust laws.

Yet this deal indicates a new direction for media mergers.

On Dec. 3 Roberts said the new NBC U aimed “to become a leader in the development and distribution of multiplatform ‘anytime, anywhere’ media that American consumers are demanding.”

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