TW would free bird

Levin may sell Primestar stake for U.S. OK

Time Warner would divest its 30% stake in Primestar if such a move would help the beleaguered satcaster win federal approval of its long-delayed plan to acquire crucial satellite TV assets from News Corp., TW chief Gerald Levin confirmed Thursday.

“We are trying to be helpful and do whatever is in the best interest of Primestar,” said Levin, chairman and CEO of Time Warner. “If that involves taking our interest out, we’ll do it.”

A refusal to elaborate

Levin, speaking to reporters after a speech to a civic group in Beverly Hills, declined to elaborate on the future of Primestar, the direct broadcast satellite (DBS) TV provider owned by TW, Tele-Communciations Inc. and three other major cable operators. Still, his remarks were the strongest statement to date from a chief exec of the five cable giants that control Primestar.

Primestar has been in a regulatory quagmire for more than a year, ever since the partners struck a deal to buy $1.1 billion worth of satellite assets from News Corp. Those assets include the license to use the only available high-powered DBS orbital slot, which would give Primestar more channel capacity to better compete with its high-power DBS rivals DirecTV and EchoStar.

DBS competition

Last month, antitrust lawyers at the Justice Department went to court to block the transfer of the News Corp. assets. The feds have been looking to the fledgling DBS providers to foster competition in the subscription TV marketplace now dominated by cable.

Levin stuck to much broader issues of media responsibility and the importance of diversity in his luncheon address to Town Hall Los at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He spoke of the vast potential and pitfalls of the Internet and the mass-media world of instant communication, or what he called “the wired universe.”

“For the first time, our planet has a digital central nervous system that can instantly send and receive print, audio and video, and one that is beyond the ability of any private or public agency to control or direct,” Levin said.

Greater concerns

But such freedom brings increased responsibilities for powerful global media companies, if only to maintain the credibility of their brands with increasingly savvy consumers.

While asserting that the media has a primary responsibility to maintain its independence and report the truth, Levin decried what he called the trend toward “tabloidization” of news as competition between news providers increases.

“Independence isn’t a license to print every rumor,” Levin said. “The media’s responsibility to protect its freedom includes a duty to avoid abusing that freedom by wantonly annihilating people’s reputations.”

Scathing story

Levin’s remarks seemed to refer to a scathing story in the current issue of Premiere magazine about the alleged behavior of execs at TW’s New Line Cinema, much of which was attributed to anonymous sources. Later, when asked to comment directly on the Premiere article, Levin said: “I wouldn’t even call it journalism. It’s another example of the arrogance of the media using anonymous sources.”

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