Court’s venue shift

TW snaps up Liberty's stake in cable net

Time Warner has closed a deal to buy out Liberty’s 50% stake in Court TV for $735 million. Net now will be fully owned by TW’s Turner Broadcasting and run by current Court TV prexy-chief operating officer Art Bell.

Court TV topper Henry Schleiff, the voluble exec who built the network from an also-ran into a basic-cable force, will exit the company. He will work for about six months as a consultant on what Turner is describing as “public initiatives” and serve as a non-executive chairman, but will have no direct reports and few day-to-day responsibilities.

Earlier, some had speculated that Schleiff would move to another role within Turner.

Bell will oversee most network functions except for some back-office duties that will be incorporated into Time Warner. Execs will keep his staff in place, including general manager Marc Juris. The net will remain based in New York.

Purchase price is regarded as inexpensive: It essentially values Court TV at $1.5 billion, a relative bargain for a net that draws 85 million total viewers.

Wall Street wasted little time in handing down a verdict, pushing Time Warner’s stock up 2% and Liberty down 3% in the hours after the deal was announced.

Move is a vindication of sorts for Time Warner’s Dick Parsons, who over the last few months has proven himself an adroit dealmaker.

Parsons had been lambasted by Carl Icahn and other critics for selling TW’s stake in Comedy Central to Viacom for $1.23 billion, among other deals. But over the last six months, he has palmed off a 5% stake in AOL for $1 billion to Google and scored more than half a billion dollars with a sale of the Time Warner Book Group to French media conglom Hachette.

In a conference call Friday, Turner execs said Court TV’s recipe of live trial coverage during the day and entertainment programming in the evening was unlikely to change under the new ownership, despite faltering ratings for the crime-related evening block dubbed “Seriously Entertaining.”

Execs did allow that the company would be “smart about sharing resources” with larger sibling CNN. News net also could exploit TheSmokingGun.com, the respected Court TV-owned Web site that has sometimes gotten lost under its more prominent parent.

Execs declined to answer whether integration would lead to job redundancies.

Move marks another pullback of Liberty topper John Malone from basic cable. Company still owns a 50% stake of game net GSN as well as payboxes Starz and Encore, along with the company’s big cash machine, juggernaut retail net QVC.

At an investor panel Thursday, Malone hinted Liberty could be gearing up for larger acquisitions, which could be funded by the new coin. Company has been taking small stakes in a range of tech and telco startups.

Malone remains in negotiations to exchange much of his 4% stake in TW for a controlling stake in the Atlanta Braves. Investors also are growing antsy over whether the maverick could work out a deal with Rupert Murdoch over his 18% stake in the conglom ahead of News Corp.’s October annual meeting.

At the confab, Liberty CEO Greg Maffei made several jokes along the lines of, “We would really like MySpace,” though a spinoff from another of News Corp.’s many divisions is more plausible.

(Denise Martin in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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