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Comcast has approached Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to explore a potential combination between the two media companies a week after it emerged that Fox had held similar talks with Walt Disney.

Mr Murdoch’s willingness to engage in discussions with potential acquirers signals that he is considering a break-up of the media empire that took him decades to assemble, according to people familiar with the matter.

Comcast, America’s largest cable operator, owns NBCUniversal — the owner of the NBC broadcast network, a portfolio of cable channels and the Universal movie studio. Fox has a similar portfolio of assets but lacks Comcast’s distribution infrastructure.

One person said that Comcast’s decision to initiate talks came after reports that Disney had held talks with Fox about buying its movie studio, cable channels and international business — including its 39 per cent stake in Sky, the European broadcaster.

The talks between the two have been described as “exploration” and “early” by two separate people briefed on the discussions. Comcast and Fox are aware that any combination would face serious regulatory hurdles, potentially requiring big carveouts, those people added.

Shares in Fox spiked more than 8 per cent in after-market trading, giving Mr Murdoch’s company a market value of about $53bn. Comcast’s share price rose 1 per cent for a market capitalisation of about $173bn.

The talks come at a tumultuous time for the media industry, which is under pressure from technological upheaval, changes in viewing habits and the global rise of digital streaming video. Content owners, distributors and disruptive technology companies are jockeying for control as they prepare for an expected round of consolidation.

All eyes are on the outcome of AT&T’s $85.4bn attempt to buy Time Warner, the owner of CNN, HBO and the Warner Brother movie studio.

The US justice department has asked AT&T to sell off either the media company’s cable networks, including CNN, or DirecTV, which is AT&T’s satellite broadcaster, to win approval for the deal. AT&T has said it would not sell CNN and has vowed to take the DoJ to court if a settlement cannot be reached.

Makan Delrahim, the head of the DoJ’s antitrust unit, has made it clear several times in recent weeks that he is opposed to deals where distributors of media and news also control content producers.

The competition watchdog has also singled out Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal as a case study of why so-called behavioural remedies — where the owner of a combined company vows not to act in an anti-competitive manner — do not protect consumers’ interests.

Analysts have speculated that if AT&T was unable to buy Time Warner, Mr Murdoch might make a bid for the company, which he unsuccessfully tried to buy in 2014. However, one person with knowledge of the situation said that Mr Murdoch no longer harboured ambitions to acquire Time Warner.

Mr Murdoch has called Randall Stephenson, AT&T chief executive, in recent months, asking if he would consider selling CNN, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Meanwhile, Fox continues to try to complete its takeover of Sky, which it has been pursuing for close to a decade.

Sky has threatened to close down Sky News if its ownership of the channel becomes a regulatory impediment to the proposed £11.7bn takeover of the European pay-television operator.

Sky warned last week in a submission to the UK’s Competition Markets Authority, which is scrutinising the deal, that the continued operation of Sky News should not be assumed in light of concerns that the Fox takeover could harm media plurality in the UK.

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