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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Company Wants to Buy NTV

A U.S. television production company previously associated with exiled media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky announced Thursday that it has offered to buy Gazprom's controlling stake in NTV and the rest of what was once Gusinsky's media empire.

Massachusetts-based Global American Television president Edward Wierzbowski said the company made an offer last week acting together with an investor, whom he refused to name.

The move stumped media observers, but there was speculation it may represent a bid by Gusinsky to reclaim Media-MOST, taken over by shareholder Gazprom, a state-controlled firm, in a bitter legal fight last year.

Wierzbowski, speaking by telephone, declined to state the amount of his company's offer for Gazprom's share, pointing to the fact that the gas giant has repeatedly put off a long-promised valuation by Dresdner Bank's investment vehicle, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.

Gazprom pledged in October to announce by mid-January the valuation of its media assets and structure of the sale but has since postponed the deadline twice. The foot-dragging has prompted accusations that the sale will not be open and transparent.

Gazprom media arm Gazprom-Media seized its controlling stake -- 50 percent plus one share -- in debt-ridden Media-MOST last April. U.S. investment fund Capital Research Management holds a 4.5 percent stake in NTV television. The rest of Media-MOST belongs to Gusinsky-affiliated firms.

Media-MOST's value has been fiercely debated. Gusinsky claimed last year that it was worth $400 million or more, while Gazprom-Media put its value at half that.

Wierzbowski said Global American Television offered to buy 25 percent of NTV from Gazprom in November, and followed up with a bid for 25 percent of Media-MOST's THT network in December. The offers expired Feb. 15, after which the U.S. company made its bid for Media-MOST.

Gazprom-Media general director Boris Jordan and board chairman Alexander Dybal were appointed in October to oversee Gazprom's announced plan to sell off the assets seized from Media-MOST.

Jordan -- an American banker who helped lead the takeover at NTV, where Gazprom installed him as director -- was also to direct the transfer of Gusinsky-controlled Media-MOST shares to Gazprom-Media.

Gusinsky said last spring that he would sell off his remaining stakes in Media-MOST, but he has stayed mum on the subject ever since.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin earlier this month accused Jordan, however, of buying Gusinsky's remaining 30 percent stake in NTV for himself. Jordan and Gusinsky have denied any such agreement. Observers said Lesin made his announcement to try to undermine an insider deal.

Media-MOST spokesman Dmitry Ostalsky said Thursday that he had not heard of Global American's offer. "I've nothing to comment," he said. "It's between Global American Television and Gazprom."

Gazprom head of corporate finance Alexander Semenyako also refused on Thursday to comment on the announcement.

Global American is not new to Russia. The company produced a landmark television program in 1982 -- in what was then the Soviet Union -- featuring satellite links between a U.S. studio and a Soviet one hosted, respectively, by talk show impresario Phil Donahue and his Soviet counterpart Vladimir Pozner.

The U.S. company also placed the first paid advertisement on Soviet television for Pepsi, Sony and Visa, it said in a press statement.

Since then, Global American has, among other activities, sold U.S. programming to Russian television stations and produced documentary programs broadcast in Russia.

Media analysts were puzzled by Global American's announcement. Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and Anna Kachkayeva -- a media analyst with Radio Liberty and an assistant professor at Moscow State University -- said they had no knowledge of it and were hard-pressed to speculate.

Kachkayeva said Global American could be acting on behalf of U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros. Panfilov said cooperation with Jordan was a possibility.

But Pozner, who is now president of the Russian Television Academy and anchor of ORT's "Vremena" program, said that Jordan's involvement was unlikely. "I'd be surprised if that's the case," he said.

Gusinsky was a more likely candidate, Pozner added, saying Wierzbowski has long been a friend of several top Media-MOST insiders, including Pavel Korchagin, a longtime deputy of former NTV director Yevgeny Kiselyov.

Wierzbowski's company has also sold programming to NTV, as well as to other Russian channels.

Korchagin was general director of THT and last year became executive director of TV6, where Kiselyov and a core team of NTV journalists found refuge after the channel's takeover by Gazprom.

Lesin, who played a large part in the NTV takeover last year, did not respond to questions faxed Thursday about the Global American offer.

Wierzbowski has also been a longtime associate of Lesin, who founded the Video International advertising company a decade ago. "We were almost one-sixth partners in Video International, but then we declined and said we'd worked together," Wierzbowski said. "Was that a mistake? I think so -- if you look at Video International today."

Even so, he said, "Misha [Lesin] is a good old friend."

Global American helped get some of Video International's first programs together to sell to Russian television, Wierzbowski said. The first project, in 1991, was "Mrs. U.S.S.R.-Mrs. U.S.A.," and the most important project was "CBS Week," a whole week of CBS programming on Russian television, he said. "It was the beginning of getting large quantities of Western programs on Russian networks."

Wierzbowski said his longshot successes working with Soviet television show massive obstacles can be overcome.

"The history of working with Gazprom is not an easy one," Wierzbowski said. "The odds are against us, but we don't look at things that way. We hope the sale will be transparent and fair and that we'll be able to put in our bid."