NEW YORK, May 31 (Reuters) – Final bids for the Weather Channel were due by the end of Friday, with a consortium of NBC Universal (GE.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and private equity firms Blackstone Group (BX.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Bain Capital seen leading the bidding, a source familiar with the situation said.
NBC, Blackstone and Bain would split $1.8 billion of equity roughly equally in the bid, which would be worth about $3.5 billion including debt, the source told Reuters.
Blackstone's GSO Capital — a hedge fund firm specializing in leveraged debt that Blackstone bought earlier this year — would provide about $600 million in debt, another source said.
Time Warner Inc (TWX.N: Quote, Profile, Research) was also in the running for the cable network, which produces national, regional and local weather-related programs, another source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Thursday.
NBC Universal and Bain Capital declined comment. Blackstone, Landmark and Time Warner could not immediately be reached for comment.
Privately held Landmark Communications, which put the channel up for sale along with other businesses, had originally sought $5 billion for the asset, sources have said.
Weather Channel's time-sensitive broadcasts and programming about hot-button issues on the environment have proven to be attractive to audiences and advertisers.
The network has more than 96 million U.S. subscribers and can be seen in more than 97 percent of all cable TV homes nationwide.
Along with NBC, CBS Corp (CBS.N: Quote, Profile, Research) was also expected to be a top contender, but another source familiar with the auction last week said such a bid appeared increasingly unlikely. CBS last week acquired Web media company CNET for $1.8 billion.
For General Electric Co's NBC Universal, the Weather Channel could be combined with its own digital weather network NBC Weather Plus.
The Weather Channel's website attracts about 35 million unique users each month, Landmark has said. That puts it among the Web's 20 most popular sites, and the top destination for online weather, news and information.
Landmark's interest in selling The Weather Channel comes amid broader shifts in the cable TV landscape. Sundance Channel, the joint venture between CBS, NBC Universal and Sundance founder Robert Redford, was sold to Cablevision Systems Corp (CVC.N: Quote, Profile, Research) for $496 million earlier this month.
Discovery Communications, which includes the Discovery Channel, Science Channel and Animal Planet networks, is expected to become a publicly traded company in the second quarter.
In addition, IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI.O: Quote, Profile, Research) is spinning off its HSN shopping network as part of a larger restructuring, and E.W.Scripps Co plans to split itself into two publicly traded companies, one that will center on its cable channels and another that will include its newspapers and broadcast TV stations.
(Reporting by Jui Chakravorty Das, editing by Leslie Gevirtz, Gary Hill)