Vivendi Likely to Sell Stake in NBC Universal

There's been a good deal of chatter in media circles over the last few weeks about whether Vivendi will soon exercise its right to sell its 20 percent stake in NBC Universal.

NBC Universal
NBC Universal

Yesterday, at an investment conferece in New York, Vivendi's CEO said no decision has been made on whether the company will seek to exit a partnership it's been in since it sold NBC its Universal Studios and accompanying assets in 2003.

Under the terms of that deal, Vivendi has the right to notify General Electric, parent of NBC Universal and CNBC, of its plan to sell the stake, between Nov. 15 and Dec 7 of this year. And while Vivendi may not have yet decided if it will exit its ownership this year, GE is fully preparing for that exit.

Every signal is that Vivendi will say it wants out, though it has yet to inform GE of any decision, according to people familiar with the situation.

In recent weeks, investment bankers have begun gearing up for a what they are calling dual path process, in which they prepare NBC Universal for an IPO while also testing the market for a partner that would be willing to replace Vivendi.

Vivendi has the right to register its shares for an IPO, and GE has the right to buy the stake prior to any IPO. Vivendi could also be willing to sell to a third party if the price is of its liking and GE approves of that partner.

Right now, GE is highly unlikely to try and purchase Vivendi's stake, which could be worth north of $5 billion, said people close to the story. An IPO, they say is currently the most likely of outcomes.

Any IPO would not occur until at the least, the middle of 2010, but it would be a significant change for NBC Universal. An IPO would put a firm value on the company and allow it to use a new found currency, its stock, to pursue acquisitoins, rather than rely on GE to pay for deals with cash.

GE is guarding its cash these days to the point where it brought in privatre equity partners for the last sizeable purchase it made for NBC Universal — the acquisition of The Weather Channel.

There have been no discussion about a sale by GE of NBC Universal and that is not expected to become a consideration.

Still, there is a possiblity that when Vivendi's put is excercised there will be parties interested in buying its 20 percent stake, despite its complete lack of any control on the company.

Those parties could include a large investor such as a soveriegn fund or more likely an operating company that wants more exposure to media content such as comcast.

Comcast officials are not commenting, but that company is almost certain to consider buying the Vivendi stake. The question is whether it could reach a deal with the French at a price that would exceed the proceeds of a public offering, while also reachinga deal with GE to become its partner.

It also possible that the structure of the partnershoip could be altered to confer more rights to the 20 percent owner if that purchaser was willing to pay for the privilege.

The same applies to any other partners.

Vivendi may advise GE of its plans in the next few weeks, prior to the official window. And it may decide to hold for another year. Regardless, GE is getting ready for a process that at this point apperas likely to add another media giant to to the ranks of the public markets.

NBC officials declined all comment for this report.