GE buys out Vivendi stake in NBC Uni

Deal paves way for Comcast's proposed joint venture

The most buzzed-about media sale in years inched another step closer to fruition late Monday as General Electric reached an agreement to buy the 20% stake in NBC Universal held by Vivendi.

The deal with the French conglomerate would pave the way for GE to sell control of the movie studio and its broadcast and various cable networks to Comcast, the country's largest U.S. cable TV provider.

Reports late Monday suggested the understanding between GE and Vivendi has been reached but has yet to be formalized. GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt flew to Paris last week to meet with some of the Gallic shareholders. GE will apparently fork over some $5.8 billion for the stake, which values NBC Uni at $29 billion.

That hurdle overcome, Philadelphia-based Comcast can proceed to become one of the nation's largest entertainment companies by buying 51% of the Hollywood-based major in a complex transaction that would leave GE with a large, albeit minority, stake in NBC Uni.

Such a deal -- still several days away -- will catapult Comcast chairman Brian Roberts into the Hollywood limelight five years after an attempted hostile takeover of Disney failed to do so. Ironically, as of Monday, Comcast boasted a larger market capitalization than any of the major media conglomerates except for Disney.

By seeking to combine in such a dramatic fashion television distribution and production, Comcast is taking the opposite approach laid out by Time Warner, which recently spun off Time Warner Cable in an effort to become more of a pure content play.

Even after all parties have officially struck their various agreements, government regulators are expected to take about a year to bless any transaction that would involve Comcast taking a controlling interest in NBC Uni.

Already, detractors have begun their campaigns to block the deal.

A nonpartisan lobby group concerned with media issues called Free Press, for example, issued a statement Monday saying, "Decades of disastrous media consolidation have already given us higher prices, fewer independent and local voices, and the same cookie-cutter content wherever we go."

In its effort to kill a Comcast-NBC Uni deal, Free Press promised to "rally people across the country who are tired of mega-mergers being rubber-stamped."