Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Viacom Sold Rock Band for a Song. A Really, Really Cheap Song.

Here’s what happens when a red-hot videogame franchise goes cold: You can buy the whole company for the same price as a single copy of the game.

I had a hunch that Viacom sold off Harmonix, which makes the Rock Band games, at a steep discount last month. But I’m still surprised it was this cheap: I’m told that investment group Columbus Nova paid $49.99–the list price for “Rock Band 3″–and got the entire company.

There’s more to the story, of course: People familiar with the transaction tell me Harmonix’s buyers also assumed the game company’s liabilities. That includes expensive music rights fees, and responsibility for lots of unsold games and equipment sitting on warehouse shelves.

And I’m told that the deal is structured in a way that will let Viacom net something like $150 million in tax benefits, similar to the AOL/Bebo fire sale last year. Given that Viacom paid $175 million for Harmonix a few years ago, things could be worse.

[UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times reports that Viacom will actually receive a $50 million tax benefit, and offload $100 million in liabilities. That makes more sense, and I've since confirmed it myself. My apology for the error.]

Still, it’s a fire sale price no matter how you look at it. And that can’t be comforting to Harmonix’s remaining employees, who are likely going to be facing a very serious restructuring.

Columbus Nova’s PR reps wouldn’t comment on the sale terms (neither would Viacom) but pointed me to an earlier statement from the company, which said it was “really excited about backing the world-class team that has consistently produced such great games and helping them grow the company and its brands.”


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik