Alliance talking with potential buyers

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TORONTO -- A half-stake in the popular "CSI" franchise is back in play as Canadian broadcaster Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. confirmed that it is holding sales talks with potential buyers.

Toronto-based Alliance Atlantis, which co-produces the "CSI" shows with CBS Prods., said Friday that it is "engaged in discussions regarding a possible sale."

Southhill Strategy Inc. -- Alliance Atlantis' controlling shareholder and the investment vehicle for the broadcasters' executive chairman, Michael MacMillan -- also is participating in the talks.

Alliance Atlantis, which last month hired RBC Dominion Securities Inc. to explore strategic alternatives, added that obstacles remain in the way of a possible sale and that "there can be no assurance that these discussions will result in a definitive agreement."

News of a possible sale in the works follows media reports Friday that U.S. private-equity firm Goldman Sachs & Co. and rival Canadian broadcaster CanWest Global Communications Corp. had teamed to launch a formal bid for Alliance Atlantis.

Neither Winnipeg, Manitoba-based CanWest Global nor New York-based Goldman Sachs offered comment on a possible partnership.

But CanWest Global, which has been holding informal talks with MacMillan for some time, apparently is eyeing Alliance Atlantis' 13 cable channels. The company isn't particularly interested in the "CSI" franchise, thanks to a previous foray into TV production with its money-losing Fireworks subsidiary.

The joint bid with CanWest would see Goldman Sachs take the 50% stake in the "CSI" franchise, while CanWest would add the cable channels to its own growing stable of conventional TV stations and cable nets in Canada. CBS and other private-equity firms are among other rumored buyers for the "CSI" stake.

Other possible bidders for Alliance Atlantis include rival broadcasters Astral Media, Rogers Communications and Corus Entertainment.
 
Astral Media spokesman Alain Bergeron said that Alliance Atlantis has cable channels that would help his company grow, but he would not address whether Astral had or will submit a formal bid.

Executives at Rogers and Corus also offered no comment on possible offers for Alliance Atlantis.

In addition to the cable nets and "CSI" stake, Alliance owns a controlling 51% in independent movie distributor Motion Picture Distribution Lp. That holding is expected to be spun off by any possible Alliance Atlantic buyer.

Victor Loewy, former CEO at Motion Picture Distribution and now a consultant to Alliance Atlantis, is expected to team with a private-equity firm and lead a management buyout of the movie distribution unit.

News of multiple offers for Alliance Atlantis led the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, the country's largest media union, to ask the federal government to guard against undue media concentration.

"It is incumbent on Heritage Minister Bev Oda to speak directly to the issue now, before the bidding war gets seriously engaged," union vp Peter Murdoch said. "Our cultural and information environment is being put at risk by the increasing and dangerous pyramiding of media ownership concentration."
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