Canal open to Lagardere

Analysts say 2 to 3 years before pay TV can be sold

PARIS — Canal Plus Group chairman-CEO Bertrand Meheut has publicly admitted that the troubled Gallic paybox could be sold to growing media group Lagardere, a prospect industryites have long considered likely.

Company sources Monday confirmed that Lagardere is interested in buying Canal Plus — while emphasizing that it’s not for sale just yet. Analysts contend that it could be two to three years before the ailing pay TV group is in sufficient shape to be sold.

Meheut, parachuted into the hot seat by Vivendi Universal chief Jean-Rene Fourtou, has embarked on a major overhaul of the Canal Plus Group, centered on the sale of its money-losing international businesses and the streamlining of French ops.

Viv U has ordained that it must be in operational profit by the end of 2003, though Canal Plus hasn’t been in the black for seven years.

It laid off more than 300 workers to trim company costs and is battling to stem growing subscriber losses at its flagship pay TV web. Sub count is expected to fall by 120,000-140,000 this year — twice as many as in 2002.

However, the group’s market leading digital platform, Canal Satellite, is expected to gain 50,000 subs.

Meanwhile, Viv U is doing its bit to help. It has reportedly let Canal Plus out of e220 million ($253 million) in debt repayments to the parent company for this year.

As for Lagardere’s future role, the Gallic group headed by Arnaud Lagardere already owns 34% of Canal Satellite and 27.4% of Canal Plus Group’s thematic channel subsid Multithematiques. It has often said it would be interested if Canal Plus was for sale.

While saying there was no plan to sell Canal Plus today, Meheut told a French newspaper that he did not rule out extending the collaboration with Lagardere if there were opportunities to do so.