CBS HOLDS ITS BREATH, NBC WAITS FOR TURNER

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Following last week's network shuffle, there remains one of the Big 3 without a clear-cut idea of what the immediate future holds, as far as who its parent will be.

That network is CBS.

ABC's happy hookup with Walt Disney Co. stirred speculation on what would happen at CBS and NBC. Westinghouse Electric's anticipated bid for CBS followed a day later, but as the week ended, there was still widespread doubt about that deal surviving. All eyes looked to Ted Turner to provide the monkey wrench.

Meanwhile, NBC and parent General Electric Co. sat back, apparently content for the present. NBC is in no hurry to pursue a megamerger and has no plans to sell, said network President-CEO Robert Wright.

Mr. Wright said no one telecommunications company could address all of NBC's growth prospects. He contended that merging with Seagram Co.'s MCA, Sony Corp.'s Columbia or Viacom's Paramount isn't likely to solve all of NBC's growth objectives in the same manner as Disney's acquisition of ABC.

"They believed that move was right for them," Mr. Wright said. "But that kind of move is not the right thing for us."

Industry analysts say that despite the cool facade, GE Chairman Jack Welch and Mr. Wright should connect with a major studio soon to keep their network competitive.

Mr. Wright believes a link with Turner Broadcasting System makes sense to NBC, and that the Atlanta cable tycoon will eventually come knocking.

"His interest is generic," Mr. Wright said of Mr. Turner. "If it says `network' above your door, he's interested. Since we are the only ones left, he's certainly interested."

However, many believe Mr. Turner will show up first, bouquet in hand, at the door of CBS.

"CBS is a company that is for sale, and the nature of their agreement with Westinghouse does not preclude someone else coming in over the top," Mr. Wright noted. "So Ted now has what he has wanted all of his life, which is a clear opportunity to buy a network. The question is whether the amount of money involved works for him. I personally think it doesn't."

Dan Rank, director-national TV and radio at DDB Needham Worldwide, New York, said: "I'd bet against Westinghouse. I guarantee you Turner is going to go for it. MCA or Turner would make better partners for them."

"My opinion is that [CBS Chairman-CEO Laurence] Tisch will consider whoever will pay him the most ..... I think he might still consider Turner .... As for Turner, though, I think he does want a network and this might be his last chance to get one," said Mel Conner, director-national broadcast at North Castle Partners, Stamford, Conn.

Mr. Turner most likely would have to borrow funds against CBS' assets and use TBS stock to top Westinghouse's $81 a share offer. Experts say it would take a bid of up to $95 a share to top Westinghouse, whose offer has an actual value of about $83 a share when special interest payments to shareholders are included.

There was speculation last week that Time Warner could decide to back a TBS bid for CBS and achieve its much sought after network alliance that way. Mr. Turner might also find himself backed by an unlikely partner such as Seagram.

Other possible scenarios that surfaced were that Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates or TBS owner Tele-Communications Inc. could provide financial support of a TBS bid.

The possibility of more bidders might not be bad news for CBS.

"Larry Tisch has proven from the beginning he knows nothing about broadcast..... will the Westinghouse merger be good? It's not the best match for CBS. They might be better off with Barry Diller or even Turner. What CBS needs is a good kick in the pants," said Chuck Bachrach, exec VP-director of media resources and programming at Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif.

Westinghouse Chairman Michael Jordan voiced confidence that his $5.4 billion bid would hold up, saying, "We don't anticipate" a bidding war for CBS.

Meanwhile, NBC seems content to be on the sideline, watching the game unfold. But it still likes the idea of linking with Mr. Turner, who walked away from an offer this year because he wanted to retain control of the resulting company.

"We have a lot in common with Turner," Mr. Wright said, but Mr. Turner has to come to grips with the reality that he's not going to get CBS.

"Turner has to deal with the CBS issue before we can talk again," Mr. Wright said.

"The merger of Capital Cities and Disney does not represent a significant change in the world we live in," the NBC chief said. "We're not in a rush to do anything ....They sold out and so did CBS. Those were both sales. That's not what we're doing."

Compiled from Electronic Media and Ad Age reports.

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