Equity Fund, Internet Stars in Spotlight at Sun Valley Schmoozefest

Times Staff Writers

Since it began in 1983, the annual conference for top money managers and investors sponsored by Wall Street power broker Herbert Allen Jr. has been a barometer of the shifting sands of the media landscape.

In the early days, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and maverick cable TV tycoon John Malone were the top draws of the exclusive event. At this year's event, held last week at the Sun Valley Resort, Internet billionaires were the belles of the ball.

Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was on everyone's to-meet list in 1999 -- his first appearance at the five-day event. And two years ago, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were the hottest tickets.

Holding a full dance card this year: Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube Inc., a website with an extensive, searchable video library. In recent months it has surpassed the traffic of such leading Internet news providers as ABC.com and CNN.com because of the popularity of the clips in its library.

The 29-year-old newcomer, however, was not the only guest in the limelight this year, signaling perhaps another trend in media.

Jonathan Nelson, chief executive of Providence Equity Partners Inc. of Rhode Island, was in the spotlight this year, emerging as the media industry's leading deal maker.

"He's the big cheese of the moment," said one guest, who did not want his name mentioned because Allen likes to keep the goings-on at the conference a secret.

In the past, big deals have gone down here such as Disney's $19-billion purchase of ABC Inc. and ESPN, and its later $5.2-billion acquisition of what is now known as the ABC Family channel.

But as traditional media companies have struggled with maturing markets and sagging stock prices, private equity funds have emerged as a rich source of buyout capital. Providence and several other private equity funds, for instance, bought out Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. in a $5-billion deal that was in the works here last year.

And it was Providence that last month led a group of investors in a $12-billion bid to buy Univision Corp., the nation's leading Spanish-language broadcaster.

At the conference, the agreement was on display again Wednesday night. Providence's Nelson was huddled in a resort lounge with his Univision partner, Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban.

One subject under discussion: whether to invite onto their team another company that had made the trek to Sun Valley, Grupo Televisa.

Televisa not only was the losing bidder for Univision but also is the largest supplier of programming to the broadcast network. After losing the auction, Televisa said it wanted to sell its 11% stake in Univision.

But sources in the know in Sun Valley said that the network's prospective new owners were in talks with Televisa. In a meeting here with Nelson, Televisa's top management proposed contributing Internet and video-on-demand programming rights that Univision does not now control -- as well as about $1 billion in cash.

In exchange, sources said, Televisa wants to hike its ownership of Univision to 25%, the maximum stake in a U.S. broadcaster that a foreign entity is legally allowed to own.

Providence was expected to confer with its partners over the weekend and get back to Televisa before a board meeting scheduled for today. At the meeting, Televisa is expected to weigh the proposal against two alternatives: selling its Univision stake or mounting a new bid.

On Thursday in Sun Valley, as other guests attended the morning panels, the Univision talks continued. Televisa Executive Vice President Alfonso de Angoitia was locked in a discussion at a table by the resort's duck pond with banker James Lee of JPMorgan Chase.

Univision was not the only piece of business for Nelson. As other guests went fly-fishing, hiking and biking Thursday afternoon, Nelson took a couple of hours out of his schedule to play golf with CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves.

Strictly pleasure? Not a chance. Moonves has made no secret of his interest in making movies at CBS. Some say MGM, within Providence's portfolio, could be in his sights.

Other snippets from the conference:

* Several titans in attendance speculated that Murdoch was working on a deal.

"Rupert is very preoccupied this year," said one of his competitors. "He's working on something."

Some top money managers here were convinced Murdoch was close to making a deal to buy EchoStar Communications Corp., the nation's second-ranked satellite TV provider and the sole rival to Murdoch's DirecTV Group.

Echostar founders Charles and Candy Ergen, here with four of their five children, tried to purchase DirecTV three years ago but were blocked by federal regulators worried about a monopoly. Murdoch seized control afterward.

DirecTV chief Chase Carey acknowledged during his stay that "an argument could be made" to Washington that the pay-television landscape has changed now that Comcast and Time Warner control a majority of the nation's cable customers and phone giants such as AT&T; and Verizon are pushing into the business.

Murdoch, in a brief interview Wednesday night, dismissed the idea that Ergen would sell. But others at the conference said the wily Ergen had been telling guests that a merger could save $3 billion in expenses.

He has a financial incentive to back a merger. Cable has stemmed the migration of subscribers to satellite by offering services such as phone and speedy Internet access that DirecTV and EchoStar are not technically equipped to deliver. This has contributed to a dramatic decline in the Ergens' net worth -- to about $8 billion.

* Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, who was a guest long before marrying movie-turned-Internet mogul Barry Diller, put on a trunk show at an upscale women's clothing shop called Panache at the resort.

Oxygen Media Corp.'s Geraldine Laybourne, seen the day before wearing a pair of bright orange Crocks, bought an elegant navy cocktail dress for her new daughter-in-law -- size 6.

Diller bobbed between a gaggle of shoppers to greet his wife and kiss some of her friends. Von Furstenberg said the event, 10% of whose proceeds were donated to a local camp for children with cancer, was so successful she wanted to make it an annual thing.

* How does a video game maker relax? Robert A. "Bobby" Kotick, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Activision Inc., the second-largest video game company, went skeet shooting with wife Nina two days in a row.

He wasn't testing the sharp-shooting talents he's developed online. He says he isn't much of a gamer, in fact. But he admitted that he recently indulged his inner rock rebel by playing "Guitar Hero," a PlayStation 2 game that Activision acquired in May. It requires the player to master increasingly complex riffs on a small electric guitar replica, to music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand and the Ramones, among others.

* With Time Warner Inc.'s stock falling last week, guests were buzzing about what the media giant could do to keep another corporate raider from following the lead of major shareholder Carl Icahn, who called for a breakup of the company before abandoning the campaign this year after failing to gain traction.

"The question is: Where is Time Warner headed?" Murdoch said Wednesday night, exiting the lodge bar before midnight to go to bed.

Time Warner will unveil a plan Aug. 2 that people familiar with the announcement say will generate revenue for its troubled AOL division.

Time Warner chief Richard Parsons quoted Roseanne Roseannadanna when questioned about the challenges he faces: "If it ain't one thing, it's another," he said. "You've gotta plug into the right philosophy."

* YouTube's Hurley, perhaps the youngest guest on the list, held a meeting with Moonves of CBS within earshot of several reporters Thursday morning.

One guest said several companies, including CBS and Murdoch's News Corp., were interested in buying YouTube because it had more traffic than any of the broadcasters' sites.

Murdoch, the owner of MySpace.com and an aggressive buyer of Internet assets, made an offer before the conference, according to a person close to the mogul. But Hurley and his venture capital partners apparently are not interested in selling just yet.

Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, said that with so much capital available right now in private equity and venture funds, the only incentive for a company such as YouTube to sell is to gain "reach" in an Internet world that he described as a "big place."

Technology reporters from the Associated Press and Reuters news services, meanwhile, made a friendly bet about whether YouTube would be around next year. Some old-media moguls also questioned whether YouTube was simply a fad.

* The Sun Valley conference is an ideal research laboratory for author and philosopher Mark C. Taylor. During a stroll of the grounds, he said the meeting allowed him to observe moguls up close over several years, helping him develop his deep theories about how business and finance are influenced by such cultural trends as postmodernism.

A humanities professor at Williams College in Massachusetts (the alma mater of the host) and a visiting professor of architecture and religion at Columbia University in New York, Taylor explained that just as postmodern architecture concerns itself with symbols of classical forms, so business, with its complex financial derivatives and abstract accounting schemes, is concerned with symbols of money that exist at an increasingly distant remove from the real thing.

* Any embarrassment arising from his $130-million settlement of a federal fraud suit last week did not keep media investor Mario J. Gabelli from making the rounds in Sun Valley.

Gabelli, founder of Gabelli Group Capital Partners, was seen hobnobbing over drinks with a group that included fellow money managers Bill Miller of Legg Mason Capital Management and Scott Schoelzel of Janus Capital Management.

* One reason for Allen's secrecy became clear on Saturday morning, when his investment banking firm, Allen & Co., moved the site of the presentations from the resort's inn, where they are usually held, to the campus theater.

Officials told reporters that the air conditioner had broken in the inn and barred reporters from entering the building.

Behind the inn, however, a local fire engine and more than a dozen trucks were parked. One was from the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security and others were marked Emergency Response and Hazardous Materials. A fire department official described it as "a nutty situation" that was "in the process of being resolved."

He would say nothing more.

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