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Now that Seagram Co. has built an enviable position in the beverage business, the company is ready to compete on a new canvas: the entertainment industry.

Announcement of the $5.7 billion deal to buy 80% of MCA Inc. opens the door for new challenges as growth slows in some of Seagram's old businesses.

"To gain a controlling interest in one of the premiere entertainment communications companies is a rare and exciting opportunity," Seagram President-CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. told analysts last week.

While the liquor industry may not be as sexy as Hollywood, it is longtime success in that field that made it possible for Seagram to buy MCA. The marketer's Crown Royal was the No. 1 Canadian whiskey, up 4.2% by volume last year, while the category declined 3.8%, according to a preliminary report from "Jobson's Liquor Handbook." Seagram's Chivas Regal scotch managed to grow last year while the overall scotch category dropped 3.7% in volume. Seagram's gin not only was the largest selling imported gin, but after some 1993 problems returned to growth. Further, Seagram also has the best selling premium imported vodka, since it took over the U.S. marketing of Absolut in February 1994.

Operating income for the wine and spirits business was $690 million for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 1995, up 3% from $666 million the previous year.

As for Tropicana Products, only the heavy price competition in the orange juice market brought down corporate profits and even there revenues from wholesale sales grew an enviable 10.7%, according to Beverage Marketing Corp.

"They are definitely No. 1 in fruit beverages," said Hellen Berry, Beverage Marketing's VP-marketing research."

Operating income for Tropicana was $91 million, down 8% from $102 million for the previous year.

Mr. Bronfman told the analysts that while Seagram had no intention of departing the beverage business, a three-year-long strategic review had determined the need to do more with Seagram's money than be a passive investor in E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. (Seagram sold its Du Pont stake to buy MCA) and the entertainment industry offered the most attractive future potential.

In MCA, Seagram picks up a major record company, half of a cable TV power (USA Networks), Universal Studios theme parks and a movie and TV production company whose biggest problem may be uncertainties about top managements' future, given its reported unhappiness with current owner Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

Gary Stibel, a principal in the New England Consulting Group, said the purchase has a lot of advantages.

"It's a good balance," he said. "Seagram is throwing off cash and gets a huge potential of long-term growth in a business [entertainment] that is more closely related and a better fit [than the Du Pont investment it sold to finance the acquisition]."

The purchase also opens the door for Seagram, an owner of nearly 15% of Time Warner, to look much more closely at other entertainment industry options including the purchase of CBS, say analysts.

"Having MCA means they are in the business, and once you are in the business you won't close your eyes to other opportunities," said Manny Goldman, an analyst for PaineWebber. "They are more apt to go after other things that will strengthen them in the business."

Jeff Jensen and Joe Mandese contributed to this story.

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