Disney not taking call from AT&T

Mouse 'unlikely' to nab cabler, but has eye on buyers

NEW YORK — Faced with a sour economy, Walt Disney won’t be getting into the cable business after all, said chief operating officer Bob Iger, tacitly warning rival AOL Time Warner to tread carefully in its pursuit of AT&T Broadband.

“Given the current environment, investment by the Walt Disney company in pipe is unlikely,” Iger told investors at the Goldman Sachs media conference in Gotham, ending months of speculation that the Mouse would buy all or part of AT&T’s giant cable operation — the nation’s largest. He said Disney would be “very vocal” if the ultimate buyer of the unit winds up owning so much “pipe and content” that it could discriminate against outside programming.

AOL Time Warner, the second largest cabler and a content giant, has also approached AT&T about a deal. The ailing telco is talking with others as well, including cabler Comcast, which put AT&T Broadband in play with an unsolicited $40 billion bid for the company in July.

Disney actively lobbied last year against the merger of AOL and Time Warner as a dangerously powerful combo of content and distribution.

Also on the deal front, it seems likely Disney and seller News Corp. will readjust downward the $5.3 billion pricetag the Mouse agreed to pay for Fox Family. Iger said Disney will monitor Fox Family in days and weeks ahead and close the transaction “if the terms and conditions” are still in place. He noted in the same breath that content businesses, including Fox Family, have all suffered in the current ad downturn.

He sees the dip continuing well into 2002 with no sign of recovery.

Chief financial officer Tom Staggs said Disney’s balance sheet is still solid but deals will be harder since the company would prefer to conserve cash but is reluctant to use its depressed stock as a currency.

He and Iger said attendance at the hard hit U.S. theme parks has been rising day by day since Sept. 11 and that the crisis hasn’t touched its overseas parks.

On the film side, Iger said, Disney’s focus on family entertainment is a big plus just now. An enhanced and restored “Snow White” will be out on video and DVD later this year. Monsters, Inc. is coming and the studio plans sequels of “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Princess Diaries.”

Iger reminisced about donning a Tigger costume at Disneyland. “I know this may sound corny, but corny counts a lot in this marketplace.”

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