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Comcast Disney drama continues, new bids for the Mouse likely

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MUMBAI: Two days after Comcast announced its bid for Disney, there seems to be no definite turn of events on the matter. But one thing for sure that will come out of the merger is that it would fundamentally redraw the lines in a constant battle between cable and satellite systems and ESPN over rates for sports programming.



Comcast is ESPN's biggest customer and ESPN is the most costly and the most valuable basic cable network which puts them on opposite ends of tough negotiations over the price to carry the popular sports channel. Every year, Disney has raised the asking price for its ESPN network by as much as 20 per cent, and cable companies, such as Comcast and Cox Communications Inc. have balked.



Now, Comcast's unsolicited bid for Disney would, for the first time, put ESPN in the hands of a company that has the ability to distribute it - and raise prices for its rivals like Disney does - potentially stirring up the contentious issue some more. Of course as a corporate parent of Disney, Comcast would want to boost profits from both ESPN and its own cable properties, a balance that is tricky, but not impossible.



Whatever said and done, in the end Comcast would have to comply with the FCC's program access rules, which would guarantee access to ESPN.



While all these issues are being thrown up, Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner at a presentation to analysts yesterday, joked about how they planned to buy Comcast. According to one media report, after about eight hours of presentation, Eisner was the first Disney executive to make any direct mention of the bid by Comcast, after someone in the audience asked him about Disney's acquisition strategy. "Acquisitions? Oh - we're buying Comcast!" he joked.



Eisner even went to the extent of jesting at Pixar CEO and co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. whose Macintosh computers are a leading alternative to PCs running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system Steve Jobs. Eisner was quoted in a media report saying, "He created the computer, or at least Windows, or whatever he created, and did a good job." There were peals of laughter from analysts attending the company conference in Orlando, Florida where he was addressing the collapse of talks between Disney and Pixar on extending their partnership, which has generated five smash hits including last year's Finding Nemo. Since those talks failed late last month, Eisner and Jobs have traded barbs, each blaming the other.



The presentation to analysts were meant in part to counter that charge by showing the company's turnaround strategy will pay off with strong growth through at least 2007. Eisner also said that the company would consider a higher dividend as a use for the company's cash. He was quoted in a media report as saying, "We pay a pretty good dividend, I mean as far as size of the money. I'm sure we'll be talking about that as well."



In the midst of all this, while News Corp's Rupert Murdoch said that he was not interested in making a bid for Disney, it was reported in The Post that Time Warner is weighing a possible bid for the company to counter Comcast's surprise hostile takeover offer for Disney. Time Warner, the world's biggest media company, was scheduled to hold a conference call with investment bankers to discuss the possibility of making a run at Disney as was reported in the paper.



Meanwhile, Pixar Animation Studios' Steve Jobs was also understood to be in active discussions with parties, including cable operators, about putting together a team to emerge as a potential bidder for the Mouse House. One media report said that the potential suitors for Disney, including Time Warner, Viacom and Pixar were being forced to jockey for position in what may turn into a bidding war for Disney following the $66 billion unsolicited takeover bid that Comcast launched.



Now it is only a matter of wait and watch to find out which cat finally manages to nip the much-sought-after Mouse.

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