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Comcast wants to buy Fox’s international biz, but it’ll have to wait for AT&T-Time Warner approval first

The cable media behemoth really wants Fox’s Sky and Star businesses. Trump is still a factor.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, 21st Century Fox exec chairman Rupert Murdoch and former Time Warner CEO Richard Parson, all wearing tuxedos
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, 21st Century Fox exec chairman Rupert Murdoch and former Time Warner CEO Richard Parson in 2003.
Myrna Suarez / Getty Images

Last week, we heard Disney was talking to 21st Century Fox about a Big Media Deal. This week, it’s Comcast and Fox.

Comcast is interested in parts of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire that include major content franchises like “Avatar” and the film studios behind them, like 20th Century Fox. CNBC and the Wall Street Journal earlier reported the news.

But in addition to the film studios, according to sources, Comcast is actually much more interested in Fox’s international assets like Sky, a $17 billion satellite broadcasting company that operates in Europe and the U.K., and Star, a media behemoth in India. Comcast would not go for Fox’s broadcast TV business or Fox News.

Media moguls have been in selling mode lately, but the head-scratcher there has been: If everyone’s selling, who would want to be on the other side of that deal?

Turns out, even bigger media companies.

It makes sense that Comcast, the biggest pay-TV operator in the U.S. (and which owns a minority stake in Recode parent Vox Media), would want to find a way to expand by looking overseas.

Pay TV is still a growing business outside of the U.S., coupled with the growth in streaming services. Meanwhile, cord-cutting in the U.S. is becoming more dire for its TV businesses.

So if you’re Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and you heard the Disney deal didn’t get very far, why wouldn’t you call Murdoch and say, “Hey, how’s new married life? Congrats. Also, I hear you’ve got some stuff for sale. Let’s talk.” In other words, it’s early days, but an overture makes sense.

Verizon is also kicking the tires, but lots of companies have called, according to sources.

Part of what’s fueling interest in Fox’s international business is the regulatory hemming and hawing that’s holding up Murdoch’s proposed bid to buy out the rest of Sky, in which Fox currently owns a 39 percent stake. New revelations that Fox News star Bill O’Reilly had settled claims of sexual harassment prompted U.K. regulators to put a pause on approving the Sky deal.

The theory goes: If Comcast (or a Disney) acquires the 39 percent stake from Fox, it might have a smoother road to buying out the rest of Sky.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A few things still stand in the way of the next Big Media Deal.

The most obvious is the other Big Media Deal — AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, which seemed all but assured until very recently. President Trump’s Department of Justice is threatening to sue to block the merger, citing anticompetitive concerns.

(By the way, that merger doesn’t make sense to me exactly because it’s not competitive.)

The DOJ wants AT&T to agree it will sell off parts of Time Warner in order to win approval, and it turns out that one of those parts includes Turner, the owner of CNN, a frequent target of Trump’s conspiratorial rage.

Thus far, the antitrust executive in charge of the reviewing the deal, Makan Delrahim, appears to hint that such a merger could not pass without what’s known as a “structural remedy” — in other words, the selling off of parts. Delrahim spoke at length this morning at a conference where he outlined his thinking.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has said he has no plans to sell CNN, and his company is willing to fight it in the courts if necessary.

One way to understand the tension is to look at when Comcast acquired control of NBCUniversal in 2009. At the time, the government put some restrictions in place to make sure NBC would play fair with Comcast’s competitors, like Verizon or Dish, and in turn that Comcast would play fair with NBC’s competitors, including CBS and ABC.

Those were called “behavioral remedies,” which Delrahim does not like, since it puts the government in the position of making business decisions, and it has not gone well in the case of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, according to Delrahim. (By the way, it was Delrahim who lobbied on behalf of Comcast for that deal, but irony is the last thing surprising about the Trump Administration.)

What that means: If Comcast (or Verizon or Disney) wants a piece or pieces of Fox, it’ll have to wait in line. The pending court fight will make the AT&T-Time Warner merger the bellwether for all future media mergers in the land.

Unless, maybe, you’re Sinclair? But that’s another story.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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