Inside Move: U bidders pony up in stretch

Race down to three as players line up their bets

NEW YORK — The auction for Vivendi’s showbiz assets, mercifully, is coming down to the wire.

Financial backers are falling into line, thanks to a booming debt market that’s easing access to finance for leveraged buyouts.

Edgar Bronfman Jr. last week revealed he had mustered private equity commitments sufficient to mount a bid.

Meanwhile, French bank and longtime Viv U advisor Paribas joined rival bidder Marvin Davis, giving the billionaire oilman’s tender a boost. At this juncture, few are prepared to handicap the bids or to opine on whether Viv U might decide to scrap a sale altogether.

Names like MGM, Viacom and NBC are still bandied about, but it increasingly looks like a three-horse race between the two private equity plays and John Malone‘s Liberty Media.

The race is as much a battle of egos, animosities and PR spin as it is a fight for financing.

At last glance, Bronfman was moving to the inside track. His camp touts his managerial reputation and successes at VUE, while not dwelling on the huge lapse in judgment that led to its sale to Vivendi in the first place.

Bronfman also has the all-important goodwill of Viv U CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou and the conglom’s board and is generally remembered fondly by Universal execs.

Davis’ team, which includes financial maven Brian Mulligan, Seagram’s former chief financial officer, also lays claim to a strong relationship with U managers.

The same cannot be said of Malone, last month’s “leading contender.”

He’s famed for clever, tax-efficient takeover potions. But his latest overtures, and his tendency to muse publicly on his plans, aren’t going over well. The atmosphere between Malone, his erstwhile ally Barry Diller and Fourtou seems to grow more poisonous by the day.

Vivendi last week reminded Diller of a standstill agreement that bars him personally from any involvement with others to acquire control of Vivendi.

Why Viv U chose to draw attention to the clause for the first time is as hazy as why Diller declined to refute it.

Was Fourtou’s legal team calling Diller’s bluff? Or was the message for Malone, who has touted Diller as his secret weapon in a bidding war for VUE?

Diller has insisted many times that he has no interest in running U. But, perhaps unfairly, no one believes him. “He always has this twinkle in his eye,” says one exec.

“No one’s pulling any punches at this stage of the deal,” notes Janco Partners analyst Matthew Harrigan. Despite Bronfman’s new backing, he cautioned, no company on the planet is more sophisticated than Liberty when it comes to constructing a deal.

The race is far from over.