Comcast will buy controlling stake in NBC Universal

Comcast Corp. announced Thursday morning that it will acquire a controlling interest in entertainment giant NBC Universal Inc. from General Electric Co. for an initial $6.5 billion in cash and, in a bid to neutralize criticism of the deal, pledged in a letter from high-level Comcast executive David Cohen that the cable giant would respect the editorial independence of NBC News.

The company also sought to calm shareholders, who have seen the value of stock holdings decline substantially since news leaked in late September that Comcast was negotiating to acquire NBC Universal.

In a conference call with analysts, Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts said the cable giant would boost its annual cash dividend 40 percent, to almost 38 cents a share, in early 2010.

Comcast stock was up 96 cents a share, or 6.43 percent, to $15.90 in morning trading.

Roberts said a Comcast-NBC Universal merger would make the Philadelphia company “strategically complete” and that investors should view Comcast as two distinct companies: cable-TV and broadband distribution, and entertainment.

It was potentially a “terrific transaction,” Robert said, but he warned that if the government mandated conditions that undermined the deal’s business logic, he wouldn’t move forward with it. Roberts said he believed the merger would be “pro-consumer” and he expected full review by the federal government, which he said was appropriate.

Roberts and Comcast executive Stephen Burke discussed at length that the main reason for purchasing NBC Universal was the company’s highly profitable cable-TV channels, which include USA, Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC and Syfy. But they also said they did not expect to sell other parts of NBC Universal, which include the broadcast-TV network, movie studio and Universal theme parks.

According to details disclosed Thursday, Comcast will pay General Electric $6.5 billion for a 51 percent ownership interest in the joint venture. The Philadelphia cable company has the option of purchasing the remaining ownership in the joint venture after three years and seven years.

Comcast expects to pay for those remaining ownership stakes from profits in NBC Universal but has guaranteed that if those profits don’t materialize it will pay General Electric $5.75 billion from a special fund.

GE will benefit from the initial cash payment at a time when it needs the cash. The industrial concern also will borrow $9.1 billion and leave that debt on joint-venture books when it hands control over to Comcast. The deal appears to close GE’s foray into the entertainment and news business, which began in 1986.

“This deal is a perfect fit for us,” Roberts said in a statement. “We are honored that under this agreement Comcast would take over stewardship of this important collection of assets and are absolutely committed to investing in NBCU and ensuring that it is a vibrant, financially strong company able to thrive in a rapidly evolving marketplace by delivering innovative programming.”

(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Source; McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.