That gives Seagram's Universal Studios--one of the last studios without a TV outlet--control over one of the top-rated and most widely available basic-cable networks.
According to the deal unveiled yesterday, Universal will wholly own the New York-based USA Network, which reaches 73 million homes, and its burgeoning sister, the Sci-Fi Channel, which is beamed to 46 million cable boxes--and growing. The acquisition gives Universal a direct distributor for its films (Jurassic Park) and TV shows (Coach, Hercules, Xena).
Analysts say it's a win-win deal. Universal gets the TV network, and Viacom--the parent of Paramount Pictures, MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon--gets desperately needed cash. The media conglomerate has been struggling to shed $10.7 billion in debt, much of it from the 1994 purchases of Paramount and the Blockbuster video chain.
The agreement includes a clause that Viacom will not start a competing network to the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S. for an unspecified period of time. It also includes some programming licensing arrangements with Viacom's Paramount studios.
About the only people unhappy with Monday's agreement are the lawyers, who won't be tousling in court any more. Back in April 1996, Seagram filed a lawsuit saying Viacom's ownership of competing networks such as MTV and VH1 violated their partnership. Viacom countersued, claiming Seagram was trying to weasel its way into control of USA.
Four months ago, a Delaware judge agreed with Seagram and ordered both sides to submit a plan to discontinue their USA Networks joint cable TV venture.