Flush Disney working on shopping list

$3 bil-$5 bil purchase, CFO sez

NEW YORK — Walt Disney chief financial officer Tom Staggs promised Wednesday that the Mouse will not be left behind as the media biz continues to consolidate: In an unusual declaration for Disney, he said the company is husbanding cash for deals, preferably content assets like cable channels or film libraries.

It was the first time in a long while Disney has expressed a strong commitment to grow through acquisitions. Staggs even indicated a hypothetical ballpark of $3 billion-$5 billion for a purchase.

Over the next few years, “I don’t think we or anyone else will stand still,” he told Wall Streeters at an investment conference in Gotham. He said the end of a prolonged economic boom means assets are becoming more affordable.

He didn’t specify targets. But fund managers, surprised and heartened by his presentation, speculated that Pixar, whose market cap now stands at a reasonable $1.74 billion, is a no-brainer.

John Lassiter, creative force behind Pixar, just signed a 10-year contract. “Disney’s animation franchise needs some juice. If they don’t do it, someone else will,” one investor said. “Another combination that makes a lot of sense is Disney and MGM,” he added, “but I don’t think MGM is for sale.”

Disney is currently eyeing Fox Family, the cable net being shopped around by owners News Corp. and Haim Saban.

Cash on hand

Responding to a question, Staggs acknowledged that Disney hasn’t been overly aggressive buying back its own depressed stock since it wants to keep cash on hand if a “three, four or five billion-dollar acquisition came upon us.” If a big deal does come along, the Mouse would rather pay cash than “put out $5 billion worth of stock at the current price,” he said. Disney is trading at about $32, still well below its 52-week high of $43 last August.

Staggs wouldn’t rule out TV or radio station buys either, but said prices there are still a bit “lofty.” Also, a number of independently owned ABC affiliates belong to family trusts that are nearly impossible to crack.

Disney has long been interested in snapping up E.W. Scripps, for instance, a TV and newspaper group that falls into that category.

Eventually, Staggs said, Disney plans to become a consolidator in the radio industry.