B.O. boffo, but stox stumble

NBC, News Corp. shares on top

A bright box office and the liveliest Oscar season in years haven’t cast much of a glow on the giant corporations that own Hollywood.

Beleaguered AOL Time Warner’s stock is in the dog house; Vivendi Universal recently reported the biggest loss in French corporate history, and Walt Disney is staggering under a moribund ABC.

Only NBC, the network that was supposed to be doomed without a studio partner, along with News Corp., the company investors love to hate, have moved into 2002 with relative dignity or a steady share price.

“NBC won,” says one media fund manager. “It’s a reversal of fortune” — and perception.

The Olympics were a ratings triumph that waved the net to an easy victory in the last sweeps.

Rivals CBS and ABC just emerged from an embarrassing tussle over latenight host David Letterman. The conflict ballooned into an economic analysis of network news, highlighting NBC’s ability to repurpose content on sister cable nets MSNBC and CNBC.

NBC’s acquisition of Telemundo quieted industry and Wall Street gossip regarding the Peacock’s fate, indicating a commitment by GE to grow the media business, not sell it.

Looser federal regs on media ownership give NBC more room to expand, and recent changes in accounting rules make it easier for GE to pursue big ticket items.

It’s a sign of how sentiment has shifted that some investors suggest GE/NBC could make a run for AOL TW. (That would make media half of GE’s business. Most Wall Streeters still find the reverse scenario, AOL TW buying NBC, more likely.)

But AOL TW is short of cash and more vulnerable to a takeover than it’s ever been as its stock flounders in the mid-$20s from a 52-week high near $60 last summer. Employees (especially Time Warner folks) and other shareholders are fuming along with Wall Street analysts who feel misled by inflated earnings projections.

Critics rightly point out that NBC pays dearly for its ratings points and won’t be on top forever as hits like “Friends” and “Frasier” exit the airwaves. Maybe so, but it’s still outperforming ABC, CBS and Fox, all aligned with studios.

NBC and other nets will all perk up as the ad market revives, boosting parent company fortunes.

Viacom, with its big assortment of ad-driven assets, has been the biggest beneficiary thus far of a more upbeat economy, with its shares back up near their 52-week high.

Some Wall Streeters expect a hit if chief operating officer Mel Karmazin exits once his contract expires next year — considered likely after a public rift with chairman Sumner Redstone — but others see business as usual with able division toppers Leslie Moonves, Tom Freston and Jonathan Dolgen.

Disney’s stock is perking up, although there’s no quick fix in sight for ABC or consumer products, a division the Mouse has been turning around for years. At Vivendi, U.S. investors see lots of red ink but can’t comprehend much else, since half the company is a French water utility. Vivendi shares are trading near $40 — way down from a high of $70.

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