James Murdoch could move to Disney under the proposed deal, and could potentially succeed the chief executive Bob Iger in 2019 © FT montage; Bloomberg; Getty Images
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James Murdoch has been suggested as a potential successor to Bob Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney, in deal discussions with the US media company over the sale of 21st Century Fox entertainment assets, according to people briefed on the talks.
Disney is leading the race to acquire Fox’s movie studio, cable channels, international units — namely Sky in Europe and Star India — and regional US sports networks in a deal expected to carry an enterprise value of more than $60bn, these people said. Comcast, the US cable operator, and Verizon, the US telecoms group, are also in the hunt for the Fox assets.
James Murdoch, younger son of Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch and current chief executive of Fox, is likely to take a senior executive role with Disney if a sale is agreed, using his knowledge of the Fox assets and the global television market, people briefed on the negotiations said. Disney has yet to decide who will succeed Mr Iger, who is due to retire in 2019.
“No promises have been made,” said one person briefed on the talks. Fox declined to comment; Disney also declined to comment.
“Disney is like any other company in that he would have to prove himself first,” said Michael Nathanson, analyst with MoffettNathanson. “I could see him running Star, Sky and the international businesses and proving himself that way.”
If Disney succeeds in acquiring the Fox assets the deal seems set to mark the end of James Murdoch’s professional partnership with his father and brother, Lachlan, who would continue to oversee Fox’s broadcast network, Fox News Channel and sports channel, FS1. One person close to the family said it would be a “a very amiable separation”.
The Murdochs are inclined to back Disney’s proposal as they see it as posing the lowest regulatory risk, said a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations. Fears of regulatory intervention have increased following recent moves by the US justice department, which is suing to block AT&T’s proposed $85.4bn takeover of Time Warner.
The Disney-Fox deal under discussion would be structured as an all-stock transaction in which Fox shareholders would receive a portion of Disney shares in exchange for Fox equity. They would also receive a share for each existing share they hold in a new company that would be run by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, which would consist of the remaining broadcast network, Fox News Channel and sports cable networks.
CNBC first reported the structure of Disney’s offer, adding that the spin-off would not be tax-free.
Separately, the family would continue to control News Corp, which owns a portfolio of newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Sun.
Fox is currently embroiled in a lengthy UK regulatory review of a proposed £11.7bn purchase of shares it does not own in Sky. That process will continue regardless of whether the company is sold to Disney.
A deal with Disney also raises uncertainty about the future of Jeremy Darroch, Sky chief executive, who had been expected to stay with the group once it was acquired in full by Fox. Now that Disney may ultimately end up as the owner of Sky, Mr Darroch’s future is not assured, one person following the situation said.