Does Cosby Have Ingredients for NBC Purchase?


As Dr. Clifford Huxtable for eight years on NBC, Bill Cosby was capable of delivering everything from babies to homespun wisdom. But one thing Cosby can’t deliver, Hollywood and Wall Street sources say, is a deal giving him control of his network home.

Rumors of Cosby buying NBC from General Electric, which have circulated for a year, heated up again Monday when the Wall Street Journal reported that the comedian is preparing to make a “second run” at the network with the help of investment bankers Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Cosby fanned the flames when asked about his plans by saying, “I am not in the habit of commenting on things that are not finished.” What the cryptic response didn’t answer is how the comedian would raise the money needed to pull off the $3.5- to $4-billion deal.


Any Cosby bid for NBC would have to be highly leveraged or include a formidable partner, since published reports put the comedian’s net worth at about $300 million. And even if he managed such an ambitious deal, sources say Cosby would have little influence over the network’s affairs.

“What he would need is a strategic partner,” said one source. “But any partner would have to have an end use (for NBC). There would have be be something they could do with it.”

If Goldman, Sachs has such an investor or investor group in mind, it’s not saying. Much of the speculation has centered on Cosby’s fellow entertainment executives. The people with serious money, however, such as record and movie mogul David Geffen and financier Marvin Davis, are considered far too independent-minded to go in with Cosby. In fact, knowledgeable Hollywood executives can’t name a single person who has been approached.

Then there’s the matter of GE’s priorities. While the conglomerate has listened to NBC suitors in the past, a sale scenario appears now to be outdated. Analysts say Chairman John F. (Jack) Welch is looking for ways to “marry” NBC’s programming division with another company in anticipation of the development of high-tech, interactive television.

Under that scenario, Welch might try to forge an alliance or joint venture with a cable or high-tech company. NBC has already launched one cable TV network--CNBC--and is exploring with IBM such far-out concepts as TV news on demand. While a sale might have made sense a couple of years ago, Welch now sees NBC helping to fill the 500-channel pipeline expected to flow into the home by the end of the decade.

Cosby “may want it,” says John Reidy, a media analyst with Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. in New York, “but the odds of any deal are highly unlikely.” Reidy says he “takes Welch at his word” that NBC is not for sale. In addition, he notes that recent changes in federal regulations allowing the networks into the lucrative program rerun business make NBC’s value difficult to determine.

NBC has been the subject of takeover rumors almost since the day General Electric bought it in 1987. The speculation was fueled by Welch’s repeated statement that any GE-owned business that was not first or second in its market could be unloaded. NBC has been in third place in the prime-time ratings since the 1991-92 season, but Welch has recently said a sale is not in the offing.

Cosby is still under contract to make a handful of TV movies and another series for NBC. People close to the comedian say he may be enjoying the speculation over his possible NBC bid too much to knock it down. He may also see some strategic advantage to keeping the rumor alive, or may be serious about buying the network.

There is no shortage of parties willing to try to facilitate such a deal. Shortly after reports surfaced last fall about the comedian’s interest in NBC, Cosby’s representatives were deluged with calls from Goldman, Sachs; Bear, Stearns; Salomon Bros.; Shearson Lehman Bros. and Chicago’s Continental Bank.

“Some South Americans said they could come up with the money,” said Norman Brokaw, Cosby’s longtime agent and chief executive of William Morris Agency, though he did not elaborate.


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