Mouse aims to nibble a piece of Azul

Disney among possible int'l bidders

BUENOS AIRES — Five companies, including the Walt Disney Co., are looking into buying control of No. 3 Argentinean broadcaster Azul Television. Diego Lerner, Disney’s president and managing director for Latin America, declined to comment.

Interested buyers reportedly include Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst and Liberty Media, each with pay TV programming and distribution investments in Argentina and the region.

Brazil’s O Globo, Germany’s Kirch, Spain’s El Correo and Venezuela’s Cisneros Group have also been tipped as possible bidders.

Up for grabs is the 51% stake purchased by J.P. Morgan Chase in August for $67.5 million from Australia’s Prime Television. Prime acquired Azul and other broadcast assets for $140 million in 1997, but sold 49% of Azul to Spain’s Telefonica Media.

Prime hired J.P. Morgan in 1999 to find a buyer for its remaining shares and, as part of the contract, the bank agreed to purchase the shares if it didn’t find a buyer by Aug. 1 of this year.

The local broadcast TV market is experiencing tough times: Ad spend fell 18% last year and continues to slide as the recession drags on into its fourth year. Telefonica Media plans to keep its 49% share of Azul, though it may be forced to sell by regulators over antitrust concerns. Argentina’s broadcasting law prohibits owning two stations in the same city, and Telefonica Media also owns top broadcaster Telefe.

(Mary Sutter in Miami contributed to this report.)

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