Liberty CEO Greg Maffei: Howard Stern Has Been A 'Great Resource' for Sirius XM
3:40 PM 12/7/2010 by Georg Szalai

Signals that Starz should get more money for streaming content deal with Netflix and says Liberty-Barry Diller relationship is "as good as it's been in years."

NEW YORK - The future of Sirius XM Radio with or without Howard Stern, the future of Starz's relationship with Netflix and the relationship between Liberty Media and Barry Diller were among the topics Liberty CEO Greg Maffei was grilled on at a UBS media investor conference here Tuesday afternoon.

Stern has been "a great resource" for Sirius XM, and Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin and his team are "very involved" in negotiating a possible extension of his contract, which ends this year, said Maffei, whose company owns a 40% stake in the firm. But he wouldn't commit to promising the company will continue its realtionship with the radio star. Is Stern critical for Sirius XM and its financial outlook, asked Aryeh Bourkoff, joint global head of technology, media and telecoms banking at UBS. "We are all critical to some degree," replied Maffei. "We'll see what happens."

Asked about Liberty's relationship with Diller and his IAC after last week's news that Liberty has agreed to swap its stake in the online company for cash and two businesses, Maffei said "it's as good as it's been in years." Diller has said he has a good relationship with Liberty chairman John Malone, but no relationship with Maffei. In line with that, Maffei consistently referred to Diller as "Mr. Diller."

Maffei explained that Liberty's exit from IAC fits in with its focus on "getting out of non-core assets" to focus on businesses where the company can have a real say. Given that Liberty effectively gave a voting majority to Diller, Liberty knew its stock wouldn't get full value and credit for the IAC stake, Maffei said, calling the exit a "good deal for all parties."

Maffei also hinted that a deal to exit Expedia in a tax-free way could be next as some analysts have suggested - but in what he called a "glorious future."

Meanwhile, Liberty's Starz sees its streaming video content deal with Netflix expire next year, so Bourkoff asked about how the initial deal has worked out, which analysts have said should have fetched Starz a higher price. Calling it an initial test case of online video usage, Maffei said "it worked out pretty well for Netflix," and consumers seem to like it.

Starz boss Chris Albrecht has said that Starz and Netflix have been talking about a new deal with an eye not solely on getting a higher price tag, but a renewal is not ensured. "Job one" is protecting Starz's relationship with traditional pay TV distributors and also pleasing Starz content partners Disney and Sony, said Maffei, who at one point also spoke of his goal to reach a "next generation of over the top relationship."

Maffei, who is known as a deal expert, also got questions about which assets Liberty may sell in the future.

He said he expects Liberty to own Starz for at least a while, even though it is always opportunistic if deal opportunities come up. Growing the company and its original programming, strengthening distribution partnerships and other moves "can add incremental value" to Starz, which is also valued below other cable outfits, before any potential future deals, he said. A move that would see Liberty Starz become a separate tracking stock, among other things, will likely not be completed until May or June, he said.

In his keynote interview here at the 38th annual Global Media and Communications Conference, Maffei also said he expects to hold on to Sirius for "quite a while" as it is "very well positioned" and has more upside.

But a small stake that Liberty Capital continues to hold in Viacom is non-core, he once again reiterated.