Draining water biz

Messier expected to win board OK to cut stake

PARIS — Vivendi Universal’s five American board members — Edgar Bronfman Sr., Charles Bronfman, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Marie-Josee Kravis and Electronic Data Systems board prexy Richard Brown — have been the most vocal in pressuring the conglom and chairman Jean-Marie Messier to sever ties with water utility Vivendi Environment at a board meeting scheduled for this morning.

Messier is expected to seek, and win, approval for a strategy that would reduce Viv U’s stake in Vivendi Environment from 63% to less than 50%. He also plans to talk with Rupert Murdoch this week about solutions to the conglom’s current impasse over Italian pay TV.

Vivendi had agreed to buy Italian pay TV company Stream (co-owned by News Corp. and Telecom Italia) and merge it with Viv U-owned rival Telepiu. But Vivendi backed out of the deal after regulators imposed strict conditions. Murdoch threatened to sue, but it’s more likely the moguls will reach an accord. It’s possible Stream will absorb Telepiu instead, providing Vivendi with another infusion of cash to help pay down debt.

Viv U’s French board members — most of whom will be taking part in the meeting by video — are split on strategy. Societe Generale honorary prexy Marc Vienot and LVMH prexy Bernard Arnault support Messier’s global vision for Viv U, while others — including president Jean-Marc Espalioux and Alcatel prexy Serge Tchuruk — favor splitting the conglom into French and American camps.

Messier has been keeping a low profile in the past month. He visited the Cannes Film Festival for less than 24 hours, was chauffeured to a meeting with high-level Viv U execs in a limousine with blacked-out windows, and didn’t set foot in the Palais or on the Croisette. His problems continue to be hashed out daily in the international press, led by aggressive coverage in the French media.

Independence questioned

France’s watchdog agency, Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, continues to hound Messier on the Canal Plus front. CSA head Dominique Baudy sent Messier a detailed letter Friday questioning several recent moves at the Gallic paybox that he thinks compromise its editorial independence. And he wants details of Canal’s finances to determine if the pay TV operator’s financial situation was dire enough to warrant firing former topper Pierre Lescure.

CSA has the authority to revoke Canal’s broadcasting license or demand payment of up to 5% of Canal’s annual revenues.

(Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)