Messier’s exit leaves window open for Diller

Jul 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Jean-Marie Messier’s controversial exit as Vivendi Universal chairman last week, which left the French conglomerate in a shambles, may provide a long-awaited opportunity for Barry Diller.
Mr. Diller, who has a 1.5 percent stake in the Vivendi Universal Entertainment assets he presides over as chairman, may finally get his longtime wish to leverage an entertainment empire formidable enough to command the merger interest of a powerful U.S. broadcast network such as NBC, with which Mr. Diller nearly sealed a union several years ago.
Although Mr. Diller and NBC Chairman and President Bob Wright could not be reached Wednesday for comment on whether they will renew their talks, sources said Mr. Diller already has been moving behind the scenes to position VUE for expansion.
In a memo last week, Mr. Diller, who kept a low public profile during news of the Messier resignation, urged Vivendi Universal staffers “to view this change as the end of an increasingly distracting and tumultuous time and the beginning of a clear-eyed, long-term stable strategy.”
Analysts last week privately said Mr. Diller could command the funds and partners needed not only to acquire VUE but also to merge with other acquired media properties. Mr. Diller has said he will spend $9 billion during the next three years to expand his solely owned and commanded USA Interactive empire, which includes Home Shopping Network, Ticket Master and Expedia. He also has said he would not involve USAi in a VUE transaction.
“No one is underestimating Barry right now,” said a prominent media executive who knows Mr. Diller. “No one really knows which way Barry will go on this one. But he is the only player in the bunch with real, positive options.”
It is believed Vivendi’s new management and board and its beleaguered investors would prefer that Mr. Diller build on the value of VUE rather than sell it outright, or even keep it within Vivendi’s broad array of assets. Insiders said investors and others underestimate the determination of Vivendi Univeral’s new leadership to hold all the company’s pieces together for now.
Some insiders said Mr. Diller has distanced himself from Universal and other VUE operations, choosing only to help with integrating the merged operations and providing big-picture strategy. Mr. Diller presides over VUE without a contract or salary, although he is due a $275 million payout from when he sold his USA Networks assets to Vivendi earlier this year for $10 billion.
Some Universal executives said they do not believe Mr. Diller wants to be more closely involved in the daily business there but might not mind presiding over a larger media empire. Only time will tell.
In addition to speculation about Mr. Diller acquiring more of a stake in or all of VUE, there is talk that the Bronfman Family, which has a 5.5 percent stake in Vivendi Universal, also could acquire back the Universal film, theme park and music they sold for $34 billion to Mr. Messier several years ago.