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U may turn on its TV with Brillstein-Grey

Studio eyeing small screen again

Less than a year after selling its TV assets to Barry Diller, Universal is attempting to re-enter the TV business in a big way.

U is in talks with Brillstein-Grey Communications to purchase the half of the production company the studio doesn’t already own. Frank Biondi, chairman and CEO of Universal Studios, who is spearheading the effort to jump-start the TV business, also has had preliminary talks with former Universal TV Group chairman Greg Meidel about returning to the studio.

Sources say Meidel, if he accepted such an offer, would return as a top TV executive reporting to Biondi and would be charged with obtaining and managing TV assets. After Diller acquired U’s domestic TV operations, Meidel briefly moved to the newly configured Studios USA arm of Diller’s USA Networks, but he ankled that post in June and has been fielding other offers since then.

Neither Universal nor Brillstein-Grey would comment, and Meidel could not be reached, but sources say Universal is interested in purchasing the remaining 50% of Brillstein-Grey and giving co-chairman Brad Grey a top executive position at the studio.

Future control

Grey apparently wants to control his own fate and has no desire to work as a studio executive, but talks to restructure Brillstein-Grey’s deal with Universal continue. U purchased half of Brillstein-Grey for $75 million to $100 million in 1996.

Grey could still sell the entire production company and decide to bow out and start over again on his own. But sources say Grey is also considering buying back Universal’s 50% stake in his company.

Sources caution that talks are in the early stages and both sides may simply decide to stick with the status quo.

“They (Universal) would like to be in the TV business in a bigger way again,” said one source familiar with the talks. “Frank (Biondi) would like to have something to do.”

About-face

If Universal does re-enter the TV business, the move would be a complete about-face for a company that recently sold its TV assets to Diller in a complex deal that left Universal with its international distribution pipeline and half of Brillstein-Grey.

Biondi was widely believed to be irked by the Diller deal, which removed a large part of his domain. It’s unclear what Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. thinks of Biondi’s new plan and whether shareholders would approve.

It’s also unclear how such a move would affect relations with Diller’s USA Networks and how the hiring of Meidel would impact Blair Westlake, chairman of Universal Networks and Worldwide TV Group.

The talks to purchase Brillstein-Grey are coming just as its first series are being sold into syndication, putting it into profitable territory for the first time. Columbia TriStar TV, which has distribution rights to the NBC hit “Just Shoot Me,” will soon take Brillstein-Grey’s most promising asset into syndication.

(John Dempsey in New York contributed to this report.)

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