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Disney, News Lead Hallmark Bidding

12/14/2005 9:27 AM Eastern

News Corp. and The Walt Disney Co. are emerging as the most serious suitors for Hallmark Channel, according to Wall Street analysts.

So far, Hallmark parent Crown Media Holdings Inc. has received a half-dozen bids for the network, with several potential buyers now engaged in due diligence. But of that group of possible acquirers — which includes Viacom and Time Warner Inc. — Rupert Murdoch and Disney are the most interested and ardent potential buyers, according to Wall Street officials.

Disney officials, who have previously denied any interest in Hallmark, Wednesday couldn’t be reached for comment. News Corp. president Peter Chernin last week confirmed that his company was bidding for Hallmark.

Crown spokeswoman Mindy Tucker denied a Wednesday report in The Wall Street Journal which said a lack of interest from buyers might force Crown to pull the network off the block. But she declined to comment on the bidders.

Hallmark would be a good fit with Disney, according to Robert Routh of Jefferies & Co.

“They can take the content library, they can leverage it across their other platforms,” he said. “It’s family-oriented fare. It’s totally non-controversial. … It’s worth more in their hands than in any other potential buyer’s hands.”

Routh views Crown’s nearly $50 million settlement of a dispute with one of its investors, the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, as positive in terms of any sale. That because the NICC, claiming $100 million in damages, had threatened to sue Crown over a production deal it has with Hallmark.

The settlement was disclosed this week by Crown in a securities filing. Under the agreement, the interfaith group would get nearly $50 million in funding to produce programming for Hallmark. The arrangement also calls for the NICC to receive from $15 million to $25 million if Hallmark is sold to a third party.

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