Muppet sale looms

Auction for Jim Henson Co. back on track

The lingering auction of kidvid giant Jim Henson Co. appears finally to be heading into the home stretch.

Things are expected to heat up just after Memorial Day weekend, with new bids expected from studio parents and other suitors. A management buyout proposal also is in the mix.

Current owner EM.TV, the financially beleaguered German media group, first disclosed its intent to sell the well-known L.A.-based Henson unit in March 2001. EM.TV hired blue-chip investment firm Allen & Co. to conduct an auction, a process initially expected to last only a few months.

But various circumstances –including Sept. 11 market disruptions — have prolonged the process interminably. Robust TV production continues on the company’s historic lot in Hollywood, despite an understandable anxiety spreading among Henson troops eager to see the process reach its conclusion.

At least a half-dozen companies were conducting due diligence recently in a document room set up by those conducting the auction. Suitors are believed to include Disney, Viacom and AOL Time Warner, as well as at least a couple of smaller, European-based companies with kidvid operations.

Henson chief exec Charles Rivkin is known to be mulling his own buyout offer for the company, but it’s expected that bid would gel only after outside offers are finalized. Rivkin declined comment.

The CEO’s best shot at succeeding with a management-led buyout lies in the possibility that no other bidder will offer north of $175 million — believed to rep the current minimum offer EM.TV would consider accepting. There was a time when observers felt the company could fetch as much as $250 million, but no longer.

“The market in general for intellectual property is not what it was a year ago,” one industryite said recently.

EM.TV’s best chance at getting a good price for Henson appears to hinge on Allen’s success in getting suitors to construct bids based less upon current cash flow and more on future potential for the Henson brand.