Say Hello to NBC Universal

Despite the recent departure of Ross and Rachel, as well as the rest of the Friends gang from General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) NBC lineup, the future is still bright for the nation's second-highest rated network.

NBC's planned merger with the entertainment division of France's Vivendi Universal (NYSE: V  ) was officially completed this morning, clearing the way for a media powerhouse well positioned to compete with giants Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) , Viacom (NYSE: VIA  ) , and Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) .

The much ballyhooed arrangement had been stalled by a contractual dispute that Vivendi had with InterActiveCorp (Nasdaq: IACI  ) CEO Barry Diller. In May 2002, InterActiveCorp sold its USA Network, along with various other entertainment assets, to Vivendi Universal Entertainment (VUE). Along with the $2 billion price tag, InterActiveCorp retained partial ownership, as well as veto powers over any decision by VUE to sell off assets. Several rounds of legal maneuvering ended last month when the two parties agreed to play nice, reaching a deal that would pave the way for the proposed merger with NBC.

Though Vivendi will retain a 20% stake in the new enterprise, called NBC Universal, today's announcement marks the end of the company's failure to become a global media firm. The onetime water utility company embarked on an ambitious, but unfocused, expansion strategy in the late 1990s, acquiring (among other things) theme parks, cable networks, and a movie studio. After the move backfired, Vivendi was forced to sell off the pieces, finally throwing in the towel on its U.S. entertainment assets for $3.65 billion in cash and the assumption of $1.7 billion in debt. Financing for the deal was obtained through a $3.8 billion stock offering made by General Electric in March. Vivendi will also have the right to monetize (read: liquidate) its ownership position for fair market value beginning in 2006.

The new NBC Universal will own a powerful array of assets. Aside from the namesake NBC network and Universal Studios, the new entity will also control Telemundo, the world's fastest-growing Spanish-language network, as well as television production operations, five premier theme parks, and recognized names such as the USA Network, the Sci-Fi channel, and CNBC.

Combined operations are expected to generate up to $15 billion in revenues by next year. Though this represents only 10% of General Electric's anticipated revenues, the experienced and capable management team assembled at NBC Universal will help ensure that the division remains a valuable component.

Does television make your life better? Talk about it with fellow TV lovers on our Television Banter discussion board.

Fool contributorNathan Slaughterwill surely miss Friends next season, and Frazier too, for that matter. He owns shares of GE.


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