UPDATED with more details, analysis: Comcast has approached 21st Century Fox to express interest in a possible acquisition, according to media reports this afternoon, citing people familiar with the matter. The cable giant wants to explore talks to buy Fox’s movie and TV studio, some of its cable networks and its stakes in satellite TV provider Sky, Star India and the Hulu streaming service. The Fox Broadcasting Co., local television stations, Fox News Channel and Fox Sports would not be included in a possible sale.
The film and TV operations at Fox and Comcast have plenty of areas of overlap, so some carve-outs or divestitures would be necessary for a deal to proceed.
Fox shares were up 5% to $30.90 in after-market trading, with Comcast up a fraction at $37.35. Comcast and Fox did not have an immediate response to Deadline’s request for comment.
Hit shows and movies will be critical survival strategy for media companies, as consumers abandon all-you-can-eat cable subscriptions and gravitate to streaming services that offer the most popular channels. A Fox-Comcast combination would bring together the likes of Fox’s cinematic franchises X-Men and Ice Age, and such Emmy-winning shows as This Is Us and Modern Family, with Comcast-owned Universal’s The Fast and the Furious and Despicable Me properties.
The news comes during a frenzy of merger discussions in the media, as well as a pregnant moment as the industry awaits word of the AT&T-Time Warner merger, which has been held up by the Justice Department. It also comes on a day when Makan Delrahim, head of the DOJ’s antitrust division, spoke at the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Fall Forum in Washington, while across town the FCC was voting to strip away local TV ownership rules in a boon to Sinclair Broadcast Group.
“As we reduce regulation across the government,” Delrahim said, “I expect to cut back on the number of long-term consent decrees we have in place and to return to the preferred focus on structural relief to remedy mergers that violate the law and harm consumers.” In other words, mega-deals like AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner would require buyers to structure them in a way regulators deem appropriate, as opposed to agreeing to behave lawfully post-merger, as was the case when Comcast bought NBCUniversal.
It is difficult to predict the impact of this stance on future M&A. Near-term, it is prompting what is shaping up to be an epic legal battle between the government and AT&T, as the telecom giant considers the deal a vertical one, with no overlapping businesses and therefore little to no consumer impact. (One obvious detail is the inclusion of CNN, a famous whipping post for President Donald Trump, who early on voiced objection to the deal, leading many to wonder about the Jeff Sessions-led DOJ’s sudden opposition.)
A day ago (in one of those weeks that seems to stretch a lifetime), Fox executives used the company’s annual shareholders meeting in Century City to trumpet the value of the company’s assets. Executive chairman Rupert Murdoch bragged about how well the entertainment company had weathered the changes buffeting the industry by investing in its core brands and jettisoning narrow ones.
“Content is king all over again,” he said. “Video is at the heart of all digital consumption, and 21st Century Fox is uniquely positioned to benefit from a wave of innovation that makes this a great time to deliver distinct stories, sports and news and to own the very best in video brands.”
Co-executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch avoided a question about any prospective sale, telling shareholders the company had the right set of assets and the scale to propel it forward.
“We have aligned our portfolio of brands, and our business, around the future of video,” he said. “Our strategy to invest in the highest-quality content and to make that content more available, not less, is paying great dividends.”
Investment banker Lloyd Greif interpreted reports of Disney’s failed bid last week for some of Fox’s assets signaled to other would-be buyers to get serious.
“They put out a For Sale sign out, for sure,” Greif said. “Why discuss a deal that’s not happening, if not to get the word out that the company’s ‘Going, going, gone!’ “