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Billionaire Saban bows out of Muppets sale

Courtesy of Reuters
March 10, 2003

Haim Saban isn't green about children's programming, but he has decided not to make the rainbow connection.

The billionaire investor who built his fortune on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and is currently in a heated battle to acquire insolvent German media group KirchMedia no longer wants to buy Muppet-makers Jim Henson Co., a person close to the situation said on Monday.

The withdrawal by Saban, who submitted a non-binding offer five months ago, is the latest blow in the protracted saga to sell the lovable kids characters at what likely will be a steep discount to what the current owners paid just three years ago.

Saban's decision comes days after embattled German media rights group EM.TV & Merchandising AG, which owns the stable of singing puppets, including Kermit the Frog -- who famously sang "The Rainbow Connection" and "It's Not Easy Being Green" -- said it ended talks with Dean Valentine, the former television executive. Valentine had been aiming to buy a minority stake.

Sources said on Friday that Walt Disney Co. is back in talks to buy all of Jim Henson Co.'s characters and its program library for $70 million.

Disney, Saban and EM.TV officials declined to comment.

Valentine said he is structuring a different bid and sources said privately held Classic Media, which owns the rights to children's characters, also is still trying to work a deal. Classic Media officials could not be reached.

As part of a recent financial deal with Sesame Workshop, EM.TV freed the owners of Elmo and Big Bird to create entertainment-type programming, which will compete against the Muppets franchise...

EM.TV paid $680 million for Jim Henson Co. three years ago and has been trying to sell the business for more than a year. In the meantime, it has sold off chunks of the company, including the "Sesame Street" characters Henson created.

Critics say the sale has been painstaking because EM.TV has mismanaged the popular children's characters in the short time it has owned them.

As part of a recent financial deal with Sesame Workshop, EM.TV freed the owners of Elmo and Big Bird to create entertainment-type programming, which will compete against the Muppets franchise, said one person familiar with the arrangement.

Sesame, which produces the classic children's series "Sesame Street," had been allowed only to create educational programming with the characters, this person said.

A Sesame Workshop spokesman said executives were not immediately available for comment.

People familiar with the Muppets operations also have said the company's distribution and licensing deals are unfavorable and cannot be reworked for several years. They added that the company is overstaffed and that it needs a capital infusion to rebuild the brand.

Saban initially bid $128 million before completing due diligence last October and before EM.TV monetized a debt owed by Sesame that was to be a source of income for whomever bought Henson. He later reduced his offer to about $50 million, one source said.

Now, however, Saban is embroiled in a takeover battle for KirchMedia, grappling with a rival bidder, private German publisher Heinrich Bauer Verlag.

After meeting on Monday, creditors of the TV group, majority owner of broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1, demanded a decision from Kirch on the competing bids by the end of the week.

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