US broadcastinggiant NBC is said to be pondering the takeover of Bravo, the arts andentertainment cable network that was a pioneer in showing US independent andsubtitled foreign films on American television.

According to areport in the Wall Street Journal, NBC is seeking to swap its 21% stake in Bravo'scontrolling company Rainbow Media (a subsidiary of Cablevision) in exchange forfull ownership of Bravo, whose signature show is the Emmy-winning cinemainterview series Inside The Actors Studio. A Cablevision spokesperson would not comment on thepurported deal that is valued by the paper at $1.25bn.

For the moment,Rainbow Media's other networks, including both the Independent FilmChannel (IFC) and American Movie Classics (AMC) are not known to be part of thediscussions. However, any deal that sorts out Rainbow's complicatedownership structure would also free Cablevision to sell off those additionalcable networks should its cashflow and debt problems persist.

Cablevision isin a crunch right now, with funding obligations to meet by 2003 and a shareprice that has plummeted in value from more than $80 a share in 2001 to littlemore than $7 apiece. Already on the confirmed sales block is Cablevision'sNew York theatre chain, Clearview Cinemas.

AlthoughCablevision's chief Chuck Dolan is thought to be seeking somewhere closerto $2bn for Bravo, he may have little choice but to jump at NBC's offersince it represents such a hefty premium.

Based onyesterday's prices, the value of NBC's stake in Rainbow, accordingan Securities & Exchange Commission filing with regulators last week, isnow no more than $380m.

This is not thefirst time that media empires have circled Rainbow Media's assets. Twoyears ago, Cablevision solicited bids for its cable networks from the likes ofViacom, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and what was then Barry Diller's USA Networks. In the end, a20% stake in Rainbow was sold for $825m to MGM, the film studio that could nowthe hold sway over the current negotiations by demanding a cash payout fromNBC.

With a reachthat extends into some 53m US homes, Bravo would be a valuable stablemate forNBC, whose presence in the cable market has been limited so far to two news-drivennetworks: CNBC and its joint venture with Microsoft, MSNBC. Owning an outrightentertainment network gives NBC an important outlet for launching newprogramming while at the same time "re-purposing" some of itsexisting shows. Currently, NBC's only other entertainment channel is the recently-purchasedSpanish-language network, Telemundo

Already one ofNBC's hottest primetime shows, the Warner Bros-produced political dramaseries The West Wing,is coming to Bravo starting the fourth quarter of next year under an exclusivecable TV rights deal announced this March.

The West Wing joins a Bravo programming line-up thathas included re-runs of The Larry Sanders Show, Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks plus imported shows such as theUK'S Cold Feet,Canada's The Awful Truth and French-language mini-series Monte Cristo starring Gerard Depardieu.

Bravo still devotes a portion of schedule to art-house artcinema, showcasing foreign-language classics, for example, and settingaside Friday evenings to preview a few of the indie offerings shown on its IFCsister network. Bravo also broadcasts major film industry events including TheIndependent Spirit Awards, The Gotham Awards and closing night ceremonies ofthe Cannes Film Festival.

Whether any ofthese programming commitments will be pushed aside in favour of NBC productionsremains open-ended, although executives are skeptical that any wholesalechanges are in the offing

"Acorporate entity like NBC wouldn't buy something like Bravo and then killthe very reason it's successful," commented Paul Gratton, generalmanager of Bravo Canada, a network styled after its US cousin but operated andprogrammed independently. "Presumably there's a complimentaryaspect to this. To buy the goodwill and the brand and then wipe them outwouldn't make sense. If they changed Bravo to a sports channel and stopdoing Inside The Actors Studio it would hurt. But what they supply us with isn't essentialto our identity."

AllianceAtlantis Communications, which operates the Independent Film Channel Canada, isanother foreign licensee confident that it will remain unaffected by all the latestcorporate manoeuvres south of the border, no matter which networks changeshands.

An AACspokesperson told ScreenDaily that although the company shares some programming, such as DinnerFor Five, produced byIFC US, "The majority of IFC Canada programming is acquired with Canadiancontent requirements in place and we don't share enough programming tohave a significant impact."