Jack Abernethy, head of Fox Television Stations, addressed NFL rights, the presidential election’s effect on regulation, station consolidation and other topics during a NATPE keynote session Wednesday.
The executive was asked by moderator Cynthia Littleton of Deadline sister publication Variety about whether he could see Fox relinquishing rights to the NFL when the current deal expires in 2022. “I could, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “NBC lost the NFL years back and did pretty well before they got it back in Sunday night. A station with strong local ties and strong local programming will be OK. We’re not expecting that to happen.” Negotiations should take place over the next year, he predicted, and Abernethy described his outlook as “hopeful.”
Asked for his Super Bowl pick in the February 2 contest (to be carried by Fox) between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, Abernethy joked he is “rooting for the ratings.”
Fox’s lucrative portfolio of stations and the original programming outfit in the unit account for a large chunk of Fox Corp.’s revenue now that the parent company has slimmed down after the Disney-Fox deal in 2019.
As to the revival in the syndication marketplace, the exec said, “I was a little worried that studios were going to stop doing these big shows, but they’re not. So, it’s the best of both worlds for us,” given the company’s status as a significant buyer and seller of syndicated fare.
Consolidation has created much larger groups, and Fox too has added stations in Milwaukee and Seattle in recent months. But Abernethy said there’s not an M&A drive happening at Fox. “We would like to get bigger in the market if the deal works but we don’t see any compelling reason to get a lot bigger,” he said.
Dealmaking, of course, is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, the affiliations of whose five members correspond with who is in the White House. Republican FCC commissioners have expressed anti-regulatory sentiment across the board over the past three years and are currently scrutinizing the 39% cap on station ownership.
Abernethy said a win by Democrats in 2020 would mean “the whole dialogue could get a lot different” with a less favorable position for station owners compared with the Trump Era climate. He added that it’s “silly that we can’t scale our business into a national business,” a sentiment voiced at NATPE by Nexstar CEO Perry Sook, whose company recently closed a $4.1 billion acquisition of Tribune Media after a fraught regulatory process from prior suitor Sinclair. Removing the cap altogether, a remedy called for by many station owners, “will not happen for a very long time,” Abernethy predicted.