Mark McSherry: Battle has broken out this week in the global media industry and ‘King Kong’ has rivals on all sides

 

New York

Global Outlook The opening shots in a fresh and dizzying round of global media consolidation have just been fired by the industry’s two biggest moguls – Rupert Murdoch and his old friend and foe, the American businessman John Malone.

In the US, Mr Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox has been rebuffed – for now – with its $80bn (£47bn) offer for Time Warner, but an increased bid from Mr Murdoch or a rival offer could soon be on the cards.

Meanwhile, on the European front, Mr Malone’s UK-based Liberty Global has bought a 6.4 per cent stake in ITV – and while Liberty said it does not intend to make a takeover offer, it has reserved the right to bid for the British broadcaster within the next six months.

Mr Malone’s Liberty has spent almost $50bn building up a group of media companies across Europe – including Virgin Media. BSkyB, meanwhile, is in negotiations to buy Mr Murdoch’s Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland.

Back in America, Comcast is still waiting for the US Government to approve its proposed $45bn takeover of Time Warner Cable, and AT&T is also awaiting regulatory approval for its $48bn takeover of DirecTV.

One of the reasons the traditional media moguls are keen to move fast is that there is now a new breed of player in the hunt for acquisitions – the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Netflix – and these upstarts would only be too happy to disrupt the plans of the Dirty Digger (Mr Murdoch) and the Cable Cowboy (Mr Malone).

Tony Wible, the Janney Capital Markets media analyst who first raised the possibility that Mr Murdoch might bid for Time Warner, is in no doubt that this week’s manoeuvrings were just the opening salvos in a new and massive round of global media mergers and acquisitions.

“There is consolidation happening all over the planet in content and distribution,” said Mr Wible in an interview. “If you are a smaller player, I would be worried about being left behind … in distribution in the United States, we are going to have massive consolidation.”

Among possible deals, Mr Wible said Disney could now buy Discovery Communications and CBS could buy Viacom.

Another media analyst, Todd Juenger of Bernstein Research, wrote in a note: “The urgency to find a ‘dance partner’ will increase across the sector – nobody wants to be the company that gets left out of the consolidation wave, and companies would rather control their own destinies.”

The fund manager and media industry expert Mario Gabelli, who owns stock in both 21st Century Fox and Time Warner, said in a TV interview:  “I think it is basically the globalisation of the marketplace. You have got 3 billion new consumers coming in and a middle class in China and India. This is a huge market over the next 10 years … and you need scale.”

On Mr Murdoch’s offer for Time Warner, Mr Gabelli said: “I don’t think he is walking away. I think this is a first bid … My own reaction is, I don’t know who the ultimate buyer [of Time Warner] will be … Will Google come to the table to buy content? Will Amazon come to the table to buy content?”

Will Mr Murdoch secure his legacy? Will Mr Malone continue his march? Or will the new media upstarts steal their thunder? The possibilities are fascinating.

When Mr Murdoch started conquering the New York media world in 1977, Time magazine portrayed him as King Kong in Manhattan in a memorable front-page cover. If he gets his hands on Time Warner, the editor of Time may have to come up with something even better.

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