June 13, 2018 12:00 pm
AT&T is bringing Game of Thrones and Superman under one roof, but that Wolverine-Iron Man matchup may get kicked to the curb.
On Tuesday, AT&T emerged from , winning its case to buy Time Warner, the high-profile entertainment company behind networks like HBO and movie franchises like Superman and Harry Potter. It’s a big deal on its own merits: The $85 billion takeover will bring one of the biggest programmers of movies and television under the roof of the second biggest mobile carrier in the US.
Just as important: The ruling is also seen as a starting gun for other companies in media and technology to go off to the races to buy each other. This is a time when an AT&T doesn’t just see T-Mobile and its competitors, but Google, Facebook and Netflix too. And what does a company do when it needs to shake things up? Buy something, and preferably something big.
The first domino will likely fall soon. Comcast is expected to make an offer to buy 21st Century Fox, a bid to swipe Fox out from under Walt Disney Co. That means Disney’s Avengers may never get to hang out with Fox’s X-Men. (While Marvel owns the rights to all of its characters, it licensed out their film rights to various studios. Sony, for instance, owns the rights to make movies with Spider-Man, but has agreed to work with Disney and Marvel on joint projects.)
Disney signed a deal in December to buy major parts of Fox for $52.4 billion in stock. At the time, it was an eye-popping example of the lengths to which Hollywood companies would go to gird themselves against growing digital competition from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple.
That sounded smart to Comcast, so it decided to do the exact same thing. Comcast issued a press release last month saying it’s *this close* to making an all-cash offer that’s better than what Disney agreed to pay. The company was widely seen as waiting for the AT&T-Time Warner ruling to pull the trigger. Rich Greenfield, a media analyst from BTIG Research, expects Comcast to make its Fox offer within 24 to 48 hours of the AT&T ruling. A report by CNBC indicates it might not even take that long.
Fox has previously indicated it could favor Disney’s lower offer because the Disney-Fox combination has a greater likelihood of regulatory approval. But Comcast, like AT&T, is a distribution company attempting to buy content company. Now that AT&T has succeeded, Comcast can make the case that its path to regulators’ OK is clearer now.
Spokesmen for Disney and Comcast weren’t available to comment, while 21st Century Fox declined to comment.
But beyond the fate of Fox, the AT&T ruling is likely to stoke the confidence of other CEOs eyeing big takeovers. Not only did AT&T win its prize, US District Judge Richard Leon didn’t set any conditions on AT&T buying Time Warner, like requiring it to sell off certain channels. Leon also warned the US against asking for a stay so it can appeal, saying essentially that the government has wasted enough of everybody’s time and money already.
Even though AT&T is one of their foremost competitors, executives atlikely let out a cheer when the favorable ruling came in. The decision bodes well for their own $26 billion merger agreement.
As CBS has been fighting its own parent company to block a proposal to merge it with Viacom, court documents disclosed that an unnamed potential acquirer had expressed interest in CBS last year. (CBS is the parent company of CNET.) Verizon was reportedly that company. (Verizon also reportedly expressed interest in Fox last year, so who knows?)
Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam told GeekWire in May that he wasn’t interested in content and linear TV. On AT&T’s courtroom win, a Verizon spokesman said, “They have their strategy, we have ours.”
Other television programmers — like AMC, Lionsgate/Starz and Discovery Scripps — are all small enough to be tantalizing targets for another megacorporation with ambitions to bulk up.
All that’s left is for the perennial ghost of all media-tech merger speculation — that Apple would buy Netflix — to glide by.
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