KW stock skyrockets amid takeover rumors

Is King World Prods. in the Fox Family way?

Fox Family Worldwide, the kidvid partnership of News Corp. and Saban Entertainment, is among the media concerns circling King World, the indie syndie distrib whose stock price ran up more than 20% last week on rampant rumors of an impending merger or takeover deal. King World shares closed Friday at $29.31, up $4.50 points from the previous week’s closing price and near its 52-week high of $30.69.

Reps for King World and Fox Family declined comment Friday. Sources close to the situation stressed that the two sides were still in the tire-kicking stage and far from any deal. And some observers wondered whether King World would try to stoke Fox Family’s interest to serve as a bargaining chip with another reported suitor, CBS.

For Fox Family, the primary attraction of King World is the $1 billion wad of cash the debt-free, family-run company has amassed in recent years. Fox Family has been saddled with $1.7 billion in debt ever since its 1997 acquisition of International Family Entertainment and its Family Channel cabler, relaunched last year as the Fox Family Channel.

King World would bring to Fox Family the rights to the classic “Little Rascals” franchise, which was the foundation of the company now home to syndie hits “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!” and “Oprah Winfrey.” King World has also begun investing in new kidvid production over the past 18 months, signing an exclusive development pact with Vanessa Coffey and Jim Ballantine, whose credits include some of Nickelodeon’s earliest animated hits.

But it’s unclear how Fox Family — formed in 1995 to unite Saban’s production and library assets with News Corp.’s portfolio of kidvid channels — would finance a merger with King World. Stock might be used to cover some of the projected $1.5 billion to $2 billion pricetag for King World, as News Corp.’s 50% stake in Fox Family is included in the newly spun-off Fox Entertainment Group offering.

King World would provide a strong cash flow base for Fox Family in the near term, but its long-term prospects are less certain, thus putting the pressure on King World chiefs Roger and Michael King to scout around for an expansion plan — or an exit strategy.

Oprah Winfrey, King World’s biggest money-maker accounting for nearly 40% of its annual revenue, has signaled, if not expressly confirmed, her intent to wrap up her talkshow in 2002. “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” are set to roll through at least 2005, but King World only collects a distribution fee for handling the Sony-owned gameshows.

Those issues are likely to surface as sticking points in talks with CBS, which is said to be a serious contender for King World, even though the Eye already has duplicative syndication operation with its Eyemark Entertainment unit.

Another big question for any King World deal is the role Roger and Michael King, KW’s chairman and vice chairman, respectively, would play after a merger or buyout.

In fact, Winfrey holds a trump card thanks to a contract clause that gives her the option of reclaiming her distribution rights in the event that Roger King is no longer directly responsible for overseeing sales of her show.

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