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Sogecable’s big scores

Company secures $1.6 bil loan

MADRID — When David Beckham joined the Real Madrid team, it was cause for celebration at Spain’s biggest pay TV operator, Sogecable — which airs a Real Madrid channel and all of its games.

But Beckham’s move was icing on the cake for Sogecable: The cake came slightly earlier. Sogecable, a joint venture of Gaul’s Canal Plus Group and Spain’s Prisa, confirmed June 11 that it had secured a $1.6 billion loan, syndicated by J.P. Morgan and 10 other banks.

Analysts cooed at the facility’s size. But Sogecable’s real coup was the interest rate: just 4.75%. Spaniards fork out much higher interest for a house.

With the credit line in place, Sogecable has turned a huge corner. Last Christmas, many market gurus had warned that Sogecable was paying too much to merge its digital TV platform Canal Satelite Digital with the Telefonica-owned Via Digital. Per Lehman Bros., Sogecable intended to cough up $1,556 per sub (compared to Gallic web TF1’s $994 per sub for its stake in satcaster TPS) and take on too much debt: some $1.7 billion, post-merger.

Having tied down the loan, however, the question is not whether the merger will go through, but its details. Propelled by the loan, Sogecable’s stock has rallied 170% to $17.9 since its all-time low last October.

Under the merger, Telefonica has taken 21% in Sogecable, while Prisa and CPG keep 16% apiece.

Telefonica doesn’t want to pony up more money for media; Prisa runs a tight financial ship; CPG has indicated it may pull out of Sogecable in 2004.

“The loan means that Sogecable’s partners will not need to make a capital increase to finance the merger, or at least not in the short-term,” says Enrique Jimenez, an analyst at Ibersecurities.

The loan saves Sogecable some $50 million annually by honing financial costs, according to another Madrid-based analyst.

Sogecable still has a lot of merger legwork, such as renegotiating U.S studio deals.

Yet even here it has been favored: its subscribers cough up euros, but a quarter of its programming costs — the studio deals — are paid in dollars. And the dollar has fallen 30% against the euro.

According to Sogecable sources, the new Digital Plus will have an honorary prexy but be run by chief executive Javier Diez de Polanco.

The new, merged programming offer will be presented late July and marketed strongly from late August. Beyond Canal Plus, it will feature, BSkyB style, new three-channel sports and movie premium packages.

And, starting in August, Beckham — Europe’s most famous sports star — will be curving in centers for Sogecable-broadcast Real Madrid, thanks to his four-year, $29.3 million deal on June 17.

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