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Mar 17, 2004  •  Post A Comment

MSNBC Slates High-Tech Summit

After focusing on big-picture, high-tech moguls in previous tech summits, MSNBC is stocking up on consumer gadgets and celebrity panelists for “The Future Is Now: Tech Summit 2004,” a two-hour live program scheduled for telecast at 8 p.m. Sunday.

MSNBC’s Lester Holt, who also hosts NBC’s weekend “Today,” and “National Geographic Ultimate Explorer” host Lisa Ling will co-host the program. The most wired guest will be Mark Cuban, who got super-rich enough as co-founder of MicroSolutions and Broadcast.com to buy the Dallas Mavericks and to sink millions of his own money into developing high-def sports, movie and entertainment programming.

Other guests will include “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” design guru Thom Filicia, who will be the guide on a tour of a high-tech house; race car driver Mario Andretti, who gives Ms. Ling a ride in an innovative car; and MSNBC election analyst Joe Trippi, the architect of the Internet-driven Howard Dean presidential campaign, on the medium’s potential for organizing.

The gadgets under discussion will range from the latest in high-definition TV and digital video recorders to instant replay binoculars and a “wired” hot tub.

The summit will take place at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in lower Manhattan.

Tribune Promotes Two Execs: Tribune Broadcasting has elevated John Reardon and John Vitanovec to group VPs with increased regional oversight of Tribune-owned TV stations. They will report to Tribune Broadcasting President Patrick Mullen.

Mr. Reardon has been general manager of Tribune’s KTLA-TV in Los Angeles and a regional VP. He will be responsible for Tribune stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Denver, Sacramento, St. Louis, Portland and San Diego, as well as the company’s two-station clusters in Seattle and New Orleans. He also will oversee sales for all Tribune television stations.

Mr. Vitanovec also was a regional VP and was general manager of WGN-TV in Chicago. He will be responsible for Tribune stations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Mich., Harrisburg, Pa., and Albany, N.Y., plus the company’s two-station clusters in Indianapolis and Hartford, Conn. He also will oversee management of Superstation WGN along with creative services for the station group.

Vinnie Malcolm, who has been KTLA station manager for more than two years, has been promoted to VP and general manager of KTLA.

It is uncertain when a new general manager will be named for WGN.

Pax Seeks Programming, Development Help From NBC: A day after announcing it would restate three years of financial results, Pax TV announced it hopes to broaden and sharpen its G-rated image with executive expertise and development, production and programming help from NBC Entertainment and NBC Studios.

“There clearly is a lot of room to improve on our programming,” said Seth Grossman, executive VP and chief strategic officer for Pax. Mr. Grossman said Pax wants go “a little more mainstream” without the “foul language, gratuitous sex and excessive violence” some might associate with some of NBC’s most popular and enduring programs.

“This programming consultancy is the next step in our relationship with Pax and we’re excited to be more intimately involved,” said NBC News and Cable Group President Jeff Zucker in a statement included in the announcement.

NBC has exercised its right to have Paxson Communications Corp. buy out NBC’s stake in their nearly 5-year-old partnership in November; and Mr. Grossman said things remain at a “standstill” on that front with Pax not in a position to redeem NBC’s investment.

A money crunch also forced Pax last year to cut back the amount of original programming it carries. Mr. Grossman suggested that announcements about new original programming — “still within our cost-containment structure” — are imminent and that new programming could debut as early as May.

Mr. Grossman also said that because of agreements under which NBC and some of its own stations are paid for selling advertising time on Pax, that what’s good for Pax programmingwise is good for NBC.

A spokeswoman for NBC agreed that it is “in our best interest” to protect the value of Pax, but said, “nothing has changed from when we asked for repayment on our initial investment.”

Separately, Paxson said Monday that it will restate its financial results for 1997-2000 to correct how the company accounted for stock-based acquisitions of several television stations and that it will file its 2003 financial results late because the audit of its books is incomplete.

The company said the restatements would not affect the company’s revenue, cash operating expenses or cash flow for the years in question, but will change the company’s deferred tax liabilities related to the acquisitions. Paxson said it failed to establish the proper deferred tax liability for the difference between the book basis and the tax basis of each station’s Federal Communications Commission license, as required by accounting rules. In correcting the error, the company said it expected to record additional FCC license intangible assets and deferred tax assets.

Ad Industry Pushes to Block Anti-Violence Legislation: A coalition of advertising industry groups urged federal lawmakers today to oppose legislation aimed at restricting violence in television programming. The measure at issue, which was included in Senate legislation to crack down on broadcast indecency, paves the way for a federal ban on violent TV programming when children are likely to be in the audience-whether the programming appears on broadcast, cable or satellite television.

In a March 17 letter to all U.S. senators, the advertising groups- the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the American Advertising Federation- said the prohibition raises serious First Amendment concerns. “We cannot allow the government to decide what Americans can see in their homes and when they can see it,” the letter stated. “A government stamp of approval must not be a prerequisite for programming to be seen on the broadcast and cable media.”

In an interview, Dan Jaffe, ANA executive VP, said the anti-violence provision would represent particularly bad precedent for advertising in an era when the industry is under attack on a variety of fronts-all supposedly in the interest of protecting kids. “This creates a very dangerous political environment,” Mr. Jaffe said.

The anti-violence provision is an amendment to a Senate anti-indecency bill that was approved in a 23-0 vote by the Senate Commerce Committee last week.

NAB Closes Indecency Summit to News Media: The National Association of Broadcasters today announced that a major industry summit aimed at toning down off-color broadcast programming later this month will be closed to the news media.

Among the top executives slated to participate in the March 31 Washington session are Alex Wallau, ABC Television Network president; and Tony Vinciquerra, Fox Networks Group president. Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, will also take part.

Panels at the session, which NAB agreed to host under pressure from federal regulators, will be moderated by a variety of television and radio newscasters and commentators, including news anchor Gordon Peterson of WUSA-TV in Washington. In a statement, NAB explained that the association decided to close the session to reporters “in order to encourage open and candid dialogue.” An NAB spokesman also said that the association is tentatively planning a news briefing after the all-day affair.

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Vivendi Seeks to Cancel Diller’s Veto Rights: Vivendi Universal said Wednesday that it is seeking to resolve a dispute between the French conglomerate and Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp that could throw a wrench in Vivendi’s plan to merge its U.S. entertainment assets with NBC.

Paris-based Vivendi said it has asked the Delaware Court of Chancery for a declaratory judgment that would effectively cancel Mr. Di
ller’s veto rights over decisions at Vivendi Universal Entertainment, whose assets include Universal Studios, Universal Television and cable channels USA, Sci Fi and Trio.

Mr. Diller has loomed large over the $14 billion merger of VUE and NBC, which was announced in October and is expected to be completed by June. Although Vivendi officials maintain that Mr. Diller has no power to block the NBC-VUE merger, his stake in VUE does include veto rights that could prove problematic in getting the deal completed.

Specifically, Vivendi CFO Jacques Espinasse has said NBC parent General Electric won’t close the NBC-VUE merger unless those veto rights are canceled. GE will control 80 percent of the newly merged company, to be called NBC Universal, while Vivendi will own a 20 percent stake.

Mr. Diller obtained his veto power over VUE when he sold certain entertainment assets to Vivendi Universal in 2001. As part of that sale, Vivendi said Mr. Diller agreed to turn over those veto rights once Vivendi secured a letter of credit that effectively eliminates Mr. Diller’s financial risk in VUE. Vivendi said it has obtained a letter of credit worth $1.9 billion but has not been able to get Mr. Diller to turn over his rights.

Vivendi said it expects the Delaware court to rule on the matter in a few weeks, and doesn’t expect a delay in the completion of the merger.

Meanwhile, Vivendi continued to march toward a financial comeback, reporting a sharply narrower fourth-quarter loss and significant progress in reducing the debt load that had crippled the company less than two years ago.

Vivendi said it posted a fourth-quarter loss of 642 million euros ($782.8 million), vs. a year-earlier loss of 9.8 billion euros, while revenue tumbled 55 percent to 7.2 billion euros ($8.8 billion). The results reflected Vivendi’s continued shedding of non-core assets and an improvement at the company’s telecom and entertainment businesses. The company reported continued weakness in its music and gaming divisions.

For the year, Vivendi’s red ink narrowed to 1.1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) from a year-earlier loss of 23.3 billion euros, while revenue fell 56 percent to 25.5 billion euros.

At VUE, the company reported an 11 percent increase in revenue to $6.6 billion, largely attributable to strong box-office receipts of its films and the continued success of the “Law & Order” franchise, both of which offset persistent weakness at the company’s theme parks and resorts business.

Hughes Electronics Changes Name: Hughes Electronics, the DirecTV parent in which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. purchased a controlling stake, changed its name Wednesday to DirecTV Group and began trading using its new ticker symbol DTV.N.

Hughes executives changed its name to reflect the company’s focus on the consumer satellite piece of the business, which is conducted under the DirecTV name, and the move away from the commercial side of its satellite operations.

As part of the name change, DirecTV will be trading under the stock ticker symbol DTV.N.

DirecTV’s consumer business now boasts 12.2 million subscribers, and DirecTV CEO Chase Carey has promised to boost that number substantially over the next few years. Mr. Carey has also indicated some of the former Hughes businesses would likely be sold off in favor of focusing on the DirecTV component of the business.