Viv U suitors study books prior to bid

Bronfmans suspend board participation

NEW YORK — Vivendi Universal’s board meets in New York today as potential bidders for the company’s entertainment assets, joined lately by Edgar Bronfman Jr., peruse the books. The French conglom expects formal bids to be submitted by mid- to late June.

A consortium assembled by Wachovia Bank has reportedly pledged $9 billion in debt financing to back Bronfman’s bid.

The timing means a deal may well be clinched before France closes down for the month of August — almost exactly one year after former chairman Jean-Marie Messier was pushed out with the conglom on the verge of bankruptcy.

The board, at the regularly scheduled meeting, is certain to address the state of play of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, with presentations by chief financial officer Jacques Espinasse and chief operating officer Jean-Bernard Levy.

For the first time since Viv U bought Seagram, the Bronfmans won’t be weighing in at a board meeting. Father and son agreed to suspend their board participation as Edgar Jr. works to line up financing for his run at VUE and Universal Music. Cablevision is his partner.

“It seems premature for (chairman-CEO Jean-Rene) Fourtou to outline anything to the board. Due diligence will be ongoing for at least the next several weeks, and most of the parties involved are holding their cards pretty close,” said someone close to one of the bidders.

Vivendi and Universal execs are also in Gotham to meet with bankers and potential bidders. There are still six names in play.

Aside from Bronfman, interested parties include John Malone’s Liberty Media as well as a consortium made up of former 20th Century Fox owner Marvin Davis, former Seagram CEO Brian Mulligan and a handful of influential buyout firms.

Viacom, General Electric and MGM are also exploring a deal. But it’s a very long road from interest to putting hard cash on the table.

People close to Viv U continue to insist that the conglom won’t sell the U assets if it doesn’t like the price or structure of the deals that come to the table.

Viv U has committed to reducing debt by 7 billion by year-end and thinks it can do so even without a VUE sale. Still, the company formally put VUE on the block last month and clearly hopes to strike a deal.

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