Maffei talks NBC Uni-Comcast deal

Liberty CEO predicts 'enormous' regulatory challenges

NEW YORK -- Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei signaled Thursday that he won't leave his post to become CEO of DirecTV and said that Comcast Corp. could do well if it seals a deal for a controlling 51% stake in NBC Universal.

During a luncheon keynote appearance at the annual Media and Money conference, he reiterated that his firm was never given a real chance to pursue a deal for NBC Universal, with Comcast having had talks since late spring.

Asked about the deal, he said the NBC network and TV stations are challenged businesses. And he predicted "enormous challenges and debate" on the regulatory front.

But overall the deal that Comcast has been working on with General Electric is "pretty well structured," according to Maffei. Not only does Comcast get a pretty high valuation on its own cable networks, which it would combine with NBC Uni, but it also looks set to have to contribute relatively little cash.

For the cable giant, the deal would be "good diversification and a hedge against rising content costs," Maffei argued. "(Comcast CEO) Brian (Roberts) is likely to do well with the assets."

In other news, Maffei said a combination of DirecTV with parts of Liberty would happen soon after Nov. 19 shareholder votes. A new CEO for DirecTV is likely to be named within the coming weeks.

While he has been rumored as a candidate for the post, he shrugged off such a move. "I'm probably going to stay where I am."

He will stay on DirecTV's board, though, with Liberty chairman John Malone remaining chairman, he said.

Asked what Liberty got in return for letting former DirecTV CEO Chase Carey return to News Corp. earlier this year, Maffei lauded Carey's "truly great performance" and said News Corp. treated Liberty very well in their deal that gave Liberty control of DirecTV. "John Malone says Rupert owes him one, but there is nothing in writing," he said.

Asked about Sirius XM Satellite Radio, Maffei said Liberty likes its stake in the firm because it doesn't depend on advertising at a time the ad market is challenged by a weak economy and underlying challenges.

Asked about Sirius' content deals, Maffei said, "Howard Stern probably pays for himself" by having attracted subscribers who wouldn't otherwise have signed up, but other content may not be worth keeping around.

He said Liberty could get out of Sirius down the line in various ways. One possibility is an acquisition by a bigger company, in which Liberty could get a stake.

Maffei also said he is "fairly pessimistic" about the outlook for the U.S. economy, citing high consumer debt and unemployment.

He also lauded Time Warner's performance under chairman and CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, predicting there may be more upside for the stock. Shares of TW, in which Liberty has a small stake, are "very inexpensive," he said.

Asked by reporters later why recent talks with Barry Diller's IAC to buy out Liberty's stake in the Internet firm failed, Maffei said: "We couldn't agree on terms and conditions."

The Media and Money confab is hosted by The Hollywood Reporter parent The Nielsen Co. and Dow Jones.
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