Viacom to Buy BET

Viacom, fresh off its acquisition of CBS, could be planning another major coup — a purchase of Robert Johnson’s Black Entertainment Television in a stock deal that could be worth as much as $3 billion.

The move would combine BET Holdings, including a roster of music video-based cable networks, with Viacom’s MTV and VH1 — a nice fit, industry players note. Johnson would be able to focus on some of his other ventures, like nightclubs, publishing and airline DC Air. And BET’s 35 percent owner Liberty Media could get a nice chunk of Viacom stock — something that’s missing from its portfolio.

Johnson owns 60 percent equity of the company and BET president Debra Lee owns 5 percent.

BET has publicly estimated its networks’ value at about $2.7 billion. Aside from the BET network, BET Holdings owns BET on Jazz and 50 percent of BET Movies/Starz!3. BET has 63 million subscribers.

Move Could Make BET More Profitable BET and Viacom spokesmen declined to comment but sources said it’s basically “a done deal.”

Wall Streeters said that cable networks are much more profitable when they are part of a larger family.

Stand-alone Oxygen Media, for example, is desperately seeking investors for a cash infusion.

The deal would end Johnson’s 20-year ownership and control of the largest black-targeted cable network at a time when start-up competitors like Major Broadcasting Corp. and New Urban Television are beginning to pick up cable-affiliation deals.

Company Overview Johnson began BET with an investment of $15,000, but was able to raise $10 million for his fledgling company by selling stakes to communications giants like Time Inc. and Taft Broadcasting. Over the years, he expanded into restaurants, nightclubs, magazines and an interactive Web site called BET.com.

But Johnson has also drawn criticism from those who say BET provides a low-brow mix of entertainment, mainly music videos, rather than uplifting programing for his primarily black audience.

In 1998, Liberty and Johnson bought out other public shareholders’ equity in BET Holdings for about $380 million. The purchase price, $63 a share, valued all of BET Holdings Inc. at about $1 billion.

“The one big gap in Liberty Media portfolio has been Viacom,” said Derek Baine, senior analyst at Carmel-based media research firm Paul Kagan Associates. “I’m sure Liberty would love to have a stake in Viacom.”

Baine speculates that Liberty Media would be paid in stock and would then buy more stock in Viacom on the open market, as it previously did with News Corp.

As for Viacom, it will be “able to leverage and rebrand channels, as they did when they adopted TNN and turned it into the National Network,” Baine said. “That’s one example of how a huge conglomerate like Viacom can make their customers more aware of a brand and programming.”

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