Deja Vu for U?

Bronfman boosts bid to retake assets

NEW YORK — With bids for Universal due later this month, Edgar Bronfman Jr. has suddenly improved his odds of retaking the assets he sold three years ago.

The auction for U now is shaping up as a three-horse race between the former Seagram CEO, billionaire oilman Marvin Davis and Liberty Media’s John Malone.

The Davis team confirmed Thursday it has enlisted French bank Paribas, which has long ties to Vivendi.

That news comes just after Bronfman’s camp trumpeted the addition of blue-chip investment firms Blackstone and Thomas H. Lee Partners to a team that includes Merrill Lynch and Wachovia Bank.

The Bronfman camp touts its alliance with Cablevision — which will contribute its valuable cable networks — as well as strong links to the Universal assets Bronfman assembled in the late 1990s.

But it’s unclear whether such ties will be sufficient to resurrect Bronfman’s reputation as a tenable media mogul, given his mixed reviews from staffers and on Wall Street.

His legacy at U was sullied by a deal that destroyed value for thousands of Seagram shareholders. But some say his operational skills were just coming into their own at the time of the sale.

Bronfman has defended his decision to sell the media conglom to Vivendi, then headed by CEO Jean-Marie Messier, due to the heady market, a hefty premium and competitive pressures to get bigger in the wake of two other major media mergers.

His sale of the Universal TV assets to Barry Diller is still excoriated in Hollywood. And Messier’s subsequent decision to buy them back was a real disaster for debt-ridden Viv U.

Bronfman won’t sell TV the second time around.

Supporters say Bronfman repaired and expanded a broken-down set of assets, positioning U Music as the world leader, turning the studio around after a string of flops and sprucing up the theme park business.

They credit him with finding good execs and letting them do their jobs. “He sometimes had to go through two or three people, but when he found the right one, he wouldn’t micro-manage,” a former exec said.

Detractors decry his obsession with “re-engineering,” which included the hiring of a fleet of nosy consultants, and with obliging execs to traipse off to constant retreats.

“Every single management consulting firm must have come through here,” one U exec said.

Bronfman did cut costs at the studio. He slashed the number of acts at Universal Music after the Polygram merger, creating ill will but setting the stage for the division’s financial success.

Cost cuts combined with constant consultants demoralized U staffers to some extent. Yet Bronfman is remembered fondly by studio execs scarred by a collision with the French and with Barry Diller, who ran Vivendi Universal Entertainment for a year.

People close to Bronfman say his ambition is to preserve and enhance the assets, with no plans to unload pieces — even though companies like Viacom would pay dearly for a property such as cabler Sci Fi Channel.

“There’s critical mass in each of these businesses to compete and win, to be the leader,” a person close to the bid said.

(Gabriel Snyder in Hollywood contributed to this report.)