Joint venture to be run by Disney, NBC U, Hearst

Lifetime is now in the A&E Television Networks fold.

A&E Television Networks, the partnership between Disney-ABC Television Group, Hearst Corp. and NBC Universal, has acquired Lifetime Entertainment Services, the companies announced Thursday morning.

Move had been in the works for months. A&E Television Networks will serve as parent company of the combined entity, with prexy-CEO Abbe Raven remaining as head.

Under the complex deal, however, the newly beefed up AETN may not have three parents for long. Disney-ABC and Hearst hold the larger stakes in the new company, with NBC owning only up to 16%. Deal is expected to close by the end of this year.

The entities said there “are mechanisms by which NBC U may elect or be required to exit” the combined A&E Television Networks over the next 15 years. In other words, NBC Universal’s stake is expected to gradually drop over time as Disney-ABC and Hearst slowly buy their partner out.

That’s dependent on several factors, however. Although Disney-ABC and Hearst are likely eager to become 50/50 partners in AETN in the next few years, that may not happen until the 15-year time frame is up, depending on whether NBC U wants out. For now, though, the Peacock is believed to be happy with the arrangement (which is why it didn’t seek a buyout by Disney and Hearst for its stake in A&E).

Should Disney and Hearst look to push NBC U out sooner, the congloms will be hit with a major penalty, insiders said.

Prior to this arrangement, Lifetime was a 50/50 partnership between Disney-ABC and Hearst, while Disney-ABC and Hearst owned 37.5% each of A&E, with NBC U owning the other 25%.

Lifetime CEO Andrea Wong will continue in her role but now report to Raven. A&E/Biography prexy-general manager Bob DeBitetto and History/History Intl. prexy-g.m. Nancy Dubuc will also continue in their current roles and report to Raven.

“We’ll now have a combined company that has three of the leading brands in cable TV,” Raven said. “And a company that has some of the best demos and most successful original programs in the cable landscape.”

Announcement should end speculation that Wong might depart after the merger was official. Raven said she had no plans to change the executive structure.

Combined entity will include A&E Network, Lifetime, History, Lifetime Movie Network, Bio, History Intl., Lifetime Real Women, History en Espanol, Military History and the Crime and Investigation Network.

Once the merger is finalized, AETN will likely remove some redundancies and merge areas such as operations, sales, marketing and legal. Raven declined to discuss consolidation plans, including potential layoffs.

Raven said she does see opportunities for cross-promotion and program sharing — similar to the relationship between A&E and History — once the deal is done. She also said she sees an opportunity to grow the company’s international and digital business; the new entity boasts 20 websites.

Also on the plate: evaluating the company’s various platforms and perhaps revamping or relaunching some of those services.

“Until close, we won’t have a chance to evaluate how to operate as one,” she said. “But clearly one of the things we’ll focus on is how we look at (different) practices.”

In adding Lifetime to the mix, Raven said she already had a strong relationship with Wong given the similar corporate ownership of their two companies.

“We’ve always in a lot of ways been in a similar family, with two of the same owners,” Raven said. “That’s why our two companies are so similar. I’ve been impressed with what the Lifetime team has been doing and excited about their recent successes — not just ‘Project Runway’ but also ‘Drop Dead Diva.’”

A&E, which resulted from the merger of ARTS and the Entertainment Channel 25 years ago, has operated as a three-way joint venture since then. Similarly, Lifetime was launched in 1984 as a merger between the cablers Daytime and the Cable Health Network.

New pact does give NBC Universal a stake in Lifetime for the first time, which means it once again has some interest in the telecast of hit cable series “Project Runway.” “Runway” producer Weinstein Co. moved the show from NBC U’s Bravo to Lifetime last year, prompting a flurry of lawsuits between the Peacock and Weinstein Co. The legal matter was eventually settled, with “Runway” finally bowing on Lifetime just last week to the show’s best premiere numbers ever.

Daily Variety sister publication Broadcasting and Cable broke news of the possible merger earlier this summer.

“Consolidating these networks puts a powerful portfolio of distinct brands under the strategic vision of one of the industry’s most innovative and effective leaders,” said Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group.

NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin noted that A&E TV Networks’ “success is the result of a long and very successful partnership involving NBC U, Disney-ABC and Hearst.”

Hearst Entertainment and Syndication prexy Scott Sassa said he believed the “new A&E Television Networks better positions each brand to continue to focus on the world-class storytelling and quality original programs they are known for.”

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