Eyes on TV deal maker

EDWARD HELMORE

Los Angeles

As media moguls bask under spotlights usually reserved for movie stars, John Malone, chief executive of Telecommunications Inc (TCI), is the reclusive wildcard whose pivotal position in Turner Broadcasting will make or break Time-Warner's $8.5bn (pounds 5.7bn) merger bid.

Before Turner and Time-Warner can contemplate combining to form the largest media company in the world they must first engage in a complex dance with Mr Malone, whose company is the largest supplier of television in the United States.

Known to be one of the toughest and shrewdest media deal-makers, he is notorious for changing his mind at the last minute. From his headquarters in Englewood, Colorado, 54 year-old Mr Malone has so far declined to comment.

If he is loath to cede control of Turner to TimeWarner - which is TCI's main cable competitor - he can use his right of veto as a 21 per cent owner with three seats on the Turner board.

With his cable subscribers numbering 14 million - 20 per cent of all cabled households - every channel needs MrMalone. Through Liberty Media,a $12bn (pounds 8bn) spin-off of TCI, he has stakes in other programmers including QVC,the Discovery Channel,a proposed wireless telephone system with Sprint and a selection of European cable systems.

Between them Liberty and TCI own chunks of nine of the top 25 cable channels in the US, and is now investing heavily in laying fibre-optic cable for the 500 channel,interactive media explosion of the future.

Mr Malone gained his position in Turner in 1987 when he lent the debt- laden company $569m (pounds 380m) after its acquisition of the 3,000-title MGM/UA film library. If the Time-Warner/Turner deal goes through, Mr Malone's investment will translate into a 9 per cent share of Time-Warner which translates to a return of between 400 and 500 per cent return on his 1987 investment.

"Nothing happens in this industry without his blessing," says one executive. "Everyone has to kiss his ring."

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