Is the media industry headed for a new round of merger mania? Liberty Media’s John Malone apparently thinks so speculating this morning about deals with the three largest cable companies buying T-Mobile, or even a merger of Comcast and Charter, the two largest cable operators.
“That’s something “one could contemplate in a Trump administration,” he said today in a rare public conversation with legendary investor Gordon Crawford that kicked off Lionsgate’s Investor Day series of briefings for Wall Street following its acquisition of Starz.
Could a big cable merger really happen? “I don’t know,” Malone says. “But there’d be a lot of synergy.”
The conversation between the two Lionsgate directors was designed to persuade investors that the studio is well-positioned to compete now that it also owns Starz.
Traditional cable and satellite companies were “asleep at the switch” in allowing Netflix to break up the distributors’ “toll gate” for content, Malone says.
Now he wonders: “How far up the food chain is it realistic for Lionsgate to go?”
He’s especially intrigued by the possibility of growing a global business. It’s “a great model if you can get there.”
That’s one reason Malone applauded Lionsgate investments by two companies where he owns dominant stakes: Discovery Communications and Liberty Global. That should help the studio to “try to exploit that international opportunity” and become “the gravitational center of the consolidation of free radicals” — his term for independent, and relatively small, content companies.
Lionsgate also could build its own businesses although “you are going to have to do some consolidation.”
The Liberty chief doesn’t necessarily believe it makes sense for Lionsgate to buy companies like Discovery.
“If I had control of Lionsgate that would be the last thing I would do,” Malone says. That would eliminate the possibility of “a high premium take out. That does make the company’s equity more sexy.” What’s more, Discovery “has a much bigger market cap so it’s highly unlikely I could open [Lionsgate’s] jaws big enough to get them to swallow.”
Malone also says that he has sold off more companies in his career than he has acquired. “I’d be bigger than Warren Buffett today if I hadn’t spun shit off,” he says. “My goal has always been to maximize long term shareholder wealth.”
Malone’s big concern is how content companies deal with consumer fragmentation and viewers’ growing desire to watch shows on their own time table.
That makes it hard to market any particular production. “The Library of Congress has a zillion books,” he says. “Which one is anyone going to read?”
He’s also ambivalent about Hollywood. “You can hit some home runs” but it’s hard to do so consistently. As a “big believer in levering equity for return,” he says that “volatility is your enemy.”
And he’s cool on content companies that just serve as arms merchants for others’ businesses.
“If you’re just selling AK47s to the warring nations, how much wealth do you create? How much margin do you create?,” he asks.
That’s why Malone likes Lionsgate’s union with Starz, which he controlled before the sale. It gives the studio “a predictable stream of revenue…Even [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings recognized the benefit of being in a package billed as part of a broader service offering.”
Before his 2015 investment in Lionsgate, Malone says he “called Barry Diller up and said, ‘What do you think about these Lionsgate guys?’ And he said [CEO Jon Feltheimer and Vice Chairman Michael Burns] are as good as it gets. That was my research.”
Malone adds that “they’ve never fallen into a pothole.”
Responding to an audience question, Malone reiterated his belief that Disney should “think about selling ESPN to private equity.”
Private investors could “put a higher value” on the sports service. And “if you’re just a cash cow and you’re shrinking, you don’t want to be public” because stock owners “will never value negative growth.”
The conversation between Malone and Crawford brought together two executives who were at the center of most major media deals in the industry’s heyday, especially before the AOL Time Warner debacle, when companies profited from the soaring demand for cable TV. Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc. was the largest distributor in 1999 when he sold it to AT&T. (The telco sold most of the systems to Comcast in 2001.)
And Crawford, at Los Angeles-based Capital Group, was a big investor in Time Warner, News Corp, Comcast and DirecTV among other companies before he retired at the end of 2012. He also supported Lionsgate’s acquisition of Summit Entertainment, and backed its earlier effort to buy MGM.