Rupert Murdoch’s $80B offer for Time Warner makes two things clear: The much anticipated round of content company merger mania is here — and likely will include Time Warner even though it rejected the proposal from Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox. And virtually no deal idea is too big or outlandish. One major question at this point is whether a large digital company such as Google will seize the opportunity to buy a major content company. Giants such as Fox and Time Warner want to defend the pay TV status quo — the lucrative bundle that requires subscribers to buy channels they don’t watch. If they become more powerful, then it could slow efforts by Internet companies to claim a piece of the giant ad pie that goes to TV.
Content company stock prices today reflect their new popularity. In addition to Time Warner (+15.6% at mid-day) we see Discovery +6.6%, Viacom +4.3%, Lionsgate +3.7%, AMC Networks +3.4%, and Scripps Networks +3.4%. “The urgency to find a ‘dance partner” will increase across the sector,” Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger says. “Nobody wants to be the company that gets left out of the consolidation wave, and companies would rather control their own destinies.” What’s more, every investment banker in the world now smells opportunities to collect millions in fees if they can propose and facilitate deals.
Time Warner has two things that make it especially attractive.
One is sports rights, something that Murdoch covets for services including Fox Sports 1 and his many regional sports networks such as the New York Yankees’ YES Network. Sports attracts big audiences that usually watch live — which means they don’t zap the ads. Fox could close its gap between its sports presence and Disney’s ESPN by picking up the rights that TNT has to NCAA, MLB, and NBA games.
The other Time Warner asset that Murdoch covets is HBO. There’s “a real concern that content owners are in danger of losing negotiating power to Netflix and want to ensure that rights issues are structured to protect the Pay TV ecosystem,” MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson says. Time Warner and Fox “have been aligned in this thinking and the combination would help drive a more unified industry standard on stacking rights, [subscription VOD], and TV Everywhere issues.”
Thus far, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes is taking a hard line against Fox. He took the unusual step this morning of posting a video where he says it is not in the company’s interest “to pursue any discussions with Fox.”
But this game is just beginning. Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff says that the Fox chief and Bewkes may be engaged in a careful dance choreographed in part by one of Bewkes’ closest aides — Gary Ginsberg, a former Clinton White House operative who had Murdoch’s ear when he held a similar job at the mogul’s company from 1999 to 2010. “Murdoch would surely not have gone public in this deal without Ginsberg’s encouragement, and Bewkes would have known that he could have given Murdoch absolute discouragement through Ginsberg,” Wolff says in USA Today. “This is all in the media family. The men may not be quite in the middle yet, but at this point, with a public offer out there, they are likely separated only by price.”