The big bidding war for Fox ended this morning when Comcast pulled out, handing the prized 21st Century Fox assets to Disney. With the Disney-Fox deal already assured of regulatory approval with the divesting of the Fox regional sports networks and just days from a formal Fox shareholders vote on July 27, the attention is returning to what a combined Disney-Fox entity would look like.
As Disney CEO Bob Iger said this morning, following the news of Comcast’s withdrawal, “our focus now is on completing the regulatory process and ultimately moving toward integrating our businesses.”
Because of overlap on the domestic side — combining two major film and TV studios — the process won’t be painless. The merger is expected to lead to layoffs, with sources pegging their size to approximately 5,000 people, 2,300 on the Fox side and 1,700 on the Disney side.
Then there is the question about executive leadership of the combined assets. Disney to some extent prepared for its bulked-up operations with its March reorganization that added to the portfolios of Kevin Maye and Bob Chapek. As hinted by that revamp, I hear the company’s operations are being divided into three big areas, distribution, led by Mayer, experiences, led by Chapek, and content.
I hear 21st Century Fox president Peter Rice is being eyed to lead the TV content business of the combined company. Despite Rice’s extensive experience both in TV and film, I hear he is expected to stay in television where he currently serves as CEO of Fox Networks Group. Such a prominent position would put Rice in the conversation for a potential successor to Iger.
Also rumored to move to Disney in major TV roles after the transaction are Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden as well as FX Networks CEO John Landgraf whose division is part of the assets that are being acquired. While speculation about Rice and Landgraf joining Disney has been pretty consistent over the past six months, for Walden, there also has been a scenario floated about her possibly joining Hulu, which would be majority owned by Disney after the Fox acquisition, with Comcast holding a minority stake. In her current role at Fox, Walden is a Hulu board member.
As a CEO-level female executive with strong relationship in the creative community, Walden has options. I hear the one at Disney, which she has been in discussions about, would likely involve running the combined TV studio, ABC and possibly more. Such a broad position would create conflict with Ben Sherwood who, as president of the Disney-ABC TV Group, currently oversees ABC, the Disney entertainment cable networks and ABC Studios.
I hear there likely is going to be a senior role for Sherwood, who has a great relationship with Iger, in the new, bigger Disney that could be related to his extensive background in news. (Disney will get a minority stake in Sky via 21st Century Fox, which is in a bidding war with Comcast for a controlling interest in the satcaster, including Sky News.)
Running the biggest TV studio in town, while also continuing to oversee an operation she had helped grow over the past 15 years, would likely be appealing to Walden. Meanwhile, Hulu, which just underwent an executive restructuring, presents an intriguing opportunity but the digital platform, home of acclaimed/buzzy series like The Handmaid’s Tale and Castle Rock, currently has no in-house production entity behind it, which makes its business model more challenging. That could evolve should Hulu becomes solely owned by Disney.
As for post-acquisition Fox Broadcast Co, or New Fox, there is speculation that Fox TV Group chairman Gary Newman may be asked to stick around to steer the soon-to-be independent broadcast network. Another option, which has been discussed is bringing in a seasoned top network executive should Newman opt to leave, with different names, including Gail Berman, who is in the Fox fold as a producer, mentioned. FBC’s two top creative executives, Entertainment President Michael Thorn and Alternative Entertainment President Rob Wade, are well liked and look positioned to stay on.
With Fox’s schedule for next season set and Walden and Newman still there, there is no urgency to set new leadership for the network, and New Fox chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch has been occupied by 21st Century Fox’s bid for Sky. But that will likely get on his agenda following the Fox shareholder meeting next Friday that will rubber stamp the acquisition by Disney.