Muppet for Mouse?

Disney stops playing coy, bids for Henson

In a dramatic 11th hour maneuver, Disney finally appears ready to make its long-awaited offer to buy the Jim Henson Co.

Bids received to date by Henson auctioneer Allen & Co. include a high-profile offer from entertainment financier Haim Saban and investment firm Evercore Partners. But it’s believed bids also have been placed by Classic Media, a Gotham-based licenser of children’s entertainment characters; a group led by former UPN chief Dean Valentine; and two European entertainment companies, Europlay and Entertainment Rights.

The Disney bid has been anticipated ever since current Henson owners EM.TV hired Allen more than a year ago to identify prospective buyers of the L.A.-based company. But the Mouse has played coy until recently, when indications of a potential late-breaking bid first surfaced (Daily Variety, Dec. 5).

$125 mil-$150 mil bids

EM.TV needs to conclude the auction within the next few weeks to help the German media company meet a big loan payment that comes due at year’s end. Offers received so far range between $125 million and $150 million, according to one well-placed source.

Reps for Disney and Henson declined comment. But a key source said Mouse execs have been in touch with EM.TV and are expected to place a formal offer for Henson of about $135 million.

That would top Saban-Evercore’s cash bid of an estimated $127.5 million. It’s believed one or more of the other suitors have offered to buy only a portion of the company — Classic’s angling for 49% — but those offers could prove enticing on a dollar-for-equity basis.

Deep pockets

Disney is easily the deepest-pocketed of the other known bidders, so its entrance immediately makes Burbank conglom a prohibitive favorite to win the auction. If that happens and Mouse House adopts Kermit and his Muppet brethren into the Magic Kingdom, Disney will likely collapse much of Henson’s production infrastructure and absorb the properties into its own operations.

Henson management — which ultimately decided against pursuing their own bid for the onetime family-owned company — could be kept aboard along with most creative talent if any of the other bidders prevails, however.

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