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SELL-OFFS COULD UNBUNDLE MEDIA ZIFF, VIACOM PACKAGES MAY BE SPLIT UP

By Published on .

As Ziff Communications' "black books" of key financial data open this week, insiders see parallels to another billion-dollar media breakup, the auction of Madison Square Garden properties now owned by Viacom.

The Viacom sell-off could foreshadow Ziff in at least two important ways: The Garden package has attracted some surprise suitors, and the various pieces of the package could end up unbundled and sold separately.

Eyeing the unexpected list of five suitors for the Garden package last week, one Ziff insider said: "Even when you get down to the shortlist [for Ziff Communications], don't be surprised if there are unexpected bidders."

That certainly has been so on the Madison Square Garden list.

Among the reported bidders are Liberty Media Corp.; Nike; a partnership led by The New York Times Co.; Delaware North Cos., a partnership of Cablevision Systems Corp. and ITT Hartford Insurance; and possibly CBS Inc. Chairman Laurence A. Tisch, acting as a private investor.

Nike Chairman Phil Knight last week said he "wouldn't rule it out," when asked whether his company is interested in acquiring the Garden package, but noted that it would have to "bring en-hancement to our brand and worldwide message."

Mr. Knight has said he sees Nike evolving into a global entertainment company that owns sports teams and even sports networks, and the Garden could be an ingredient in that mix.

But buying the Garden properties could be a move to keep pace with rival Reebok International, which produces its own TV programming and owns a major stake in the Cable Health Club network.

The Ziff family hopes to attract unanticipated bidders from a broad industry cross section.

But there are other parallels to the Garden auction that could yet cause uneasiness in the Ziff camp.

Viacom is raising cash to pay for its recently finalized Paramount Communications deal by unbundling Garden properties from the whole. And there's speculation the package could be further subdivided with different buyers for the New York Knicks and Rangers sports teams, the stadium and the cable channels.

Unbundling the Ziff package could help pump the price. But if a primary buyer subsequently decides to raise cash by selling to a secondary buyer, it could also open up the process to back-door bids by Ziff's high tech rivals-International Data Group and CMP Publications.

Executives at both IDG and CMP have said privately during the past few weeks that they would love to pick up key pieces of the Ziff empire even though the family doesn't want to sell it to them.

The Ziff family preference is to sell in one big block. But family members have said they would consider splitting the company into several pieces.

Edward Atorino, senior VP-media analyst at Dillon, Read & Co., New York, said: "It may be tough to sell in a total package. The early prices published in the press, $2 billion to $3 billion, seem to be very aggressive."

In another similarity to the Garden sell-off, which attracted 40 suitors at the outset, the field for Ziff is now wide open.

Steve Rattner at Lazard Freres & Co., the investment banker handling the Ziff divestment, declined to disclose the names of any potential bidders-or black book gazers.

"It's fair to say we're talking to traditional publishers and a number of people not in publishing," Mr. Rattner said, adding that the company aims to reach a tentative agreement "sometime this fall" and hopes to close the deal "by yearend."

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