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Murdochs for sale: Rupert Murdoch and his sons want out of the movie business, and maybe more

First Time Warner, now Fox. The media moguls are bailing.

Lachlan, Rupert and James Murdoch
Lachlan, Rupert and James Murdoch, 2013
Kevork Djansezian / Getty

What do you get if you combine Disney with parts of 21st Century Fox?

For starters, you get a very big movie-making company. The two media conglomerates, which have talked about a deal in recent months, collectively control 29.6 percent of the U.S. film market, and a sizable chunk of the worldwide market.

Here’s what that looks like in chart form:

U.S. box-office gross for the biggest movie companies

And Fox was reportedly willing to sell more than its studio business, which includes the TV studios, which make TV shows for its own networks as well as hits like “This is Us” for its competitors. It was also talking about selling off some of its cable TV properties — but not its core sports or news channels — along with its stake in the Sky satellite TV business.

The two sides aren’t talking now, and may never come back to the table again. But we can still glean plenty from the fact that they were talking, and from the deal they were reportedly talking about.

Some takeaways:

  • Most obviously: The Murdoch family empire, or at least part of it, is for sale. If the Murdochs were willing to talk to Disney, they’ll talk to someone else, too. Obvious candidates would include Verizon, which until very recently has seemed open to big-budget content plays, as well as the usual Silicon Valley companies that say they aren’t content companies but keep buying more and more content: Facebook, Google, Apple. It’s also a prerequisite to mention Liberty and John Malone in any deal conversation, because deal conversations are what John Malone does. And now, SoftBank, since SoftBank is interested in buying everything, all the time.
  • The fact that the Murdoch family empire, or at least parts of it, are for sale is a big change. Rupert Murdoch has usually been a buyer — remember three years ago when he wanted to swallow Time Warner? But at some point he is going to hand over the company to his sons Lachlan and James, and they’re signaling that they’re okay if he hands over a much smaller company — or no company at all. (Note: In either version of this scenario, the Murdochs would still own News Corp, the publishing (plus other stuff) business that includes the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Maybe that’s because Rupert Murdoch made his first fortune in print, or maybe it’s because they haven’t found a buyer for that one.)
  • Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, who pushed the Murdochs away three years ago, sold his company (or announced plans to sell his company) to AT&T last year. If Bewkes wants to get out of media, and the Murdochs want a much smaller media business — or no media business at all — does that count as a market top?
  • Disney CEO Bob Iger made three of the best deals in media history when he acquired Marvel + Lucasfilm + Pixar for a mere $15 billion. This deal doesn’t seem anything like that: Disney would be buying lots of redundant assets, and he could cut costs by combining them. But he wouldn’t get undervalued intellectual property, unless you are very, very, very optimistic about “Avatar” 2, 3 and 4.
  • Still, the fact that Disney would be buying film and TV studios, instead of TV and cable networks, shows you how much the media landscape has changed. Just a few years ago, every savvy media executive paid attention to TV networks because TV networks were cash machines. Consumers paid to get them, and advertisers paid to be on them. Now both of those revenue streams look much less robust than they used to, thanks to the internet. Meanwhile, studios look great, for the time being: Everyone wants to buy content and retail it over the internet. Anyone else have a studio they want to sell?

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