Cable network deal required diplomacy, timing

The idea of merging Lifetime and A&E cable networks has been kicking around for more than a decade, but it took the skills of three veteran dealmakers — and the right economic climate — to reach such an agreement last August. That’s when A&E Television Networks, the partnership among Disney-ABC Television Group, Hearst Corp. and NBC Universal, agreed to acquire Lifetime Entertainment Services.

Leading the deal were Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, Scott Sassa of Hearst (with each company owning a 37.5% interest in A&E), and Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, which held the remainder.

The delicate deal, which might not have happened if the now-anticipated sale of NBC U to Comcast had been in the works, required considerable diplomatic skills.

Sweeney notes that after years of conversations, the moment hit when the goals at all three companies aligned. The result is a more streamlined group of networks reaching more than 250 million homes worldwide. The combined entity will include A&E Network, Lifetime, History, Lifetime Movie Network, Biography, History Intl., Lifetime Real Women, History en Espanol, Military History and the Crime and Investigation Network.

“(Disney ABC chairman) Bob Iger stresses, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ It’s our company’s culture to be opportunistic about the future,” Sweeney says. “(A&E and Lifetime) are stronger together than separately. It was logical to have them come under a single management structure.”

The details were hammered out by Sassa, Kevin Mayer at ABC/Disney and Salil Mehta at NBC U. “We were lucky to find a structure that satisfied all parties, while we’re not thrilled with the human element that this cost savings represents,” Sassa says. “But by combining these cable networks (there will be) enough consumer good will to make them relevant to distributors and advertisers. That makes them great investments for the future.”

With his steady management style, Gaspin is credited with making NBC U a major cable force, with each channel breaking ratings records this year. “In general, but particularly during tough economic times, it’s important to engage in innovative dealmaking,” he says. “This deal is a great example in that it evolved an already successful partnership. It also allowed us to generate more value out of A&E.”

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