NBC Uni eyes Lifetime stake

Female-centric network would round-out partners' offerings

NBC Universal, owner of Oxygen and iVillage, might add another female-driven property to its portfolio.

Hearst, Disney ABC Cable and NBC Universal Cable are considering restructuring their partnership in A&E Television Networks to include Lifetime Networks.

Hearst and Disney ABC both own 37.5% of A&E Networks, and NBC Uni holds a 25% stake. Lifetime is a 50-50 partnership between Hearst and Disney ABC.

If the deal goes through, Hearst's and Disney ABC's stakes in the joint venture are expected to rise, with NBC Uni's ownership sliding when Lifetime is introduced to the mix.

The proposed restructuring is driven by financial reasons: Adding the female-centered Lifetime and its sister Lifetime Movie Network to the male-driven A&E and sibling History would give the partners a more well-rounded offering and increased clout in negotiating carriage deals with cable operators.

An amusing possibility is sure to make headlines: The partnership would give NBC Uni ownership in Lifetime, the network that took over the company's top cable reality series, Bravo's "Project Runway," after a long legal battle between NBC Uni and producer the Weinstein Co.

As for NBC Uni's long-term intentions, insiders speculate that the company would consider selling its minority stake in the new entity because big media companies consistently have cleaned up minority stakes in networks and other assets during recent years.

A&E and History have been going strong, both posting 8% year-to-year increases in average May viewership to 1.26 million and 1.13 million, respectively.

But Lifetime has been in a ratings slump, down 20% in May to 994,000 viewers. (though the fledging Lifetime Movie Network was up 22% to 606,000). The network's fortunes are expected to improve in the summer with the return of its biggest hit, "Army Wives," and the launch of "Runway."