SPE, NBC Uni exit HBO Asia venture

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SINGAPORE -- Sony Pictures Entertainment and NBC Universal have exited the 15-year-old HBO Asia premium movie joint venture, HBO Asia said Wednesday.

Time Warner's HBO will now hold a majority stake in the Singapore-based regional network, with Paramount remaining as a minority shareholder.

Details of the new shareholding structure were not confirmed, but insiders believe Time Warner/HBO bought out the two 20% stakes held by SPE and NBC Universal, increasing its holding from 40% to 80%.

HBO also acquired a majority stake in its separate India joint venture, HBO India, as part of the agreement. HBO's stake in India is believed to be 75%, with Paramount holding the remaining 25%.

Although no longer equity partners, the two studios will continue to supply content to the Asian network as part of long-term programming deals, HBO Asia CEO Jonathan Spink said. The licensing agreements do not cover Japan or Korea.

Spink said that the new ownership structure will provide HBO Asia "greater flexibility in pursuing opportunities in Asia."

Korea is a priority in the review process, which is under way, Spink said.

Expanding HBO's subscription VOD platform is another key objective for 2008, he added.

No timetable for new Asian initiatives has been disclosed. "There won't be any major differences in the short term," Spink said.

The split comes as both Sony Pictures Entertainment and NBC Universal ramp up their own Asian expansion plans. Neither Sony nor NBC in Asia commented on their HBO Asia exit.

Sony launched on-demand movie channels, SET Pix and Pix Thriller, in Singapore last year, and NBC is rolling out at least two new entertainment services, the Universal Channel and Sci-Fi Channel, later this year.

HBO also is expanding its business internationally, the company said in a statement.

"The majority stake in HBO Asia is a further testament to this expansion. HBO's strong performance and brand recognition in Asia was the driving force behind the decision," the statement said.

Media Partners Asia executive director and analyst, Vivek Couto, said the new ownership structure and control gave HBO Asia strategic flexibility and opened up myriad opportunities, particularly in India and Korea, which has 1 million digital households.

HBO has a subscriber base of 31 million in Asia, including South Asia, where the channel carries advertising and is distributed as part of basic pay TV packages.
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