Comcast, which for years has yearned for a big entertainment division that could produce blockbuster movies and popular cable-TV shows, reached a broad agreement Thursday to merge its cable networks with NBC Universal, one of the nation's storied TV and movie studios.
PHILADELPHIA — Comcast, which for years has yearned for a big entertainment division that could produce blockbuster movies and popular cable-TV shows, reached a broad agreement Thursday to merge its cable networks with NBC Universal, one of the nation’s storied TV and movie studios.
However, the plan is certain to present challenges, and it is fragile at this state, according to observers and insiders.
NBC Universal released the “Fast and Furious” movies and “Brokeback Mountain,” owns cable-TV networks USA and Bravo, and produces “The Office” and “30 Rock.” Its 4,000-title library contains the movie classics “Deer Hunter” and “Schindler’s List.”
Comcast would own 51 percent of the new private corporate entity, which would be valued at $35 billion, according to sources within Comcast who were not authorized to speak on the record. Beleaguered General Electric would own 49 percent. GE, whose financial and manufacturing divisions were battered in the recession, owns 80 percent of NBC Universal, and French company Vivendi owns the remaining stake.
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This multibillion-dollar gambit, which was not warmly received on Wall Street, is the fruit of the persistence of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, the Philadelphia company’s grand strategist who previously failed in his bid for the Walt Disney Co.
The deal would create a vertically integrated media conglomerate, with Comcast-controlled companies producing and distributing movies and cable-TV shows, and feeding Web sites with entertainment. It would be the largest company of its kind and seems to recreate the former Time Warner media empire. But Time Warner recently separated its cable-distribution business and its entertainment businesses into different companies.
A Comcast-NBC Universal deal would not likely give consumers relief with lower cable bills. But it could slow the soaring growth of programming costs for Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company with about 24 million subscribers, analysts said.
A merger of Comcast and NBC Universal would raise antitrust concerns as to whether Comcast has an unfair advantage in the entertainment marketplace, said Art Brodsky, communications director for the advocacy group Public Knowledge.
A Comcast-NBC Universal deal could easily collapse because of its complexity, said a high-placed source. “It could just as likely fall apart.”
It may be weeks before an announcement is made. Comcast would not comment for the record. A General Electric spokesman said the talks were “really, really early.”
Success is partly contingent on Vivendi agreeing to part with its 20 percent stake in NBC Universal. Vivendi is expected to make a decision in November.
According to sources within Comcast, the new joint venture would pay General Electric $9 billion to $12 billion. This money would come from borrowings by the joint venture and be carried as debt. GE would pay Vivendi with some of this money.
Comcast would contribute to the joint venture, in addition to its cable networks, $4 billion to $6 billion in cash, sources said. The money would go to General Electric. Comcast would obtain this money from cash reserves and borrowings.
Comcast says the value of its cable networks is about $6 billion. Those networks include Style, E!, and the Golf Channel.
GE, which was hurt by the credit crisis, badly needs cash, and sources within Comcast say it believes it is gaining control of the NBC Universal on favorable terms.
A Comcast-NBC Universal would face regulatory scrutiny at the Federal Communications Commission because of the need to transfer 10 NBC broadcast-TV licenses to the new corporate entity.