Five Ways Comcast’s Duel With Disney Over Fox Bid Could Play Out

Inside Comcast Corp. headquarters. (Bloomberg pic)

(NEW YORK) Don’t count Brian Roberts out. In meetings with investors in recent weeks, Comcast Corp.’s chief executive officer has made it clear he wants 21st Century Fox Inc.’s entertainment assets and will spare nothing to beat Walt Disney Co.’s US$71.3 billion offer. With Fox shareholders scheduled to vote July 27 on Disney’s bid, a deadline looms.

Comcast, the largest US cable provider, has been mulling next steps, including a possible partnership with private-equity firms, to compete with Disney. The company needs to sweeten its US$65 billion all-cash offer enough to win over Rupert Murdoch and his family, the largest shareholders of New York-based Fox. While the popular view is that Roberts is competing for all of the Fox businesses for sale, at least one person familiar with his thinking says he could be open to splitting the assets. Comcast declined to comment.

The Murdochs remain concerned about potential antitrust hurdles for Comcast. Disney CEO Bob Iger says his company can’t even talk to Comcast under the terms of its agreement with Fox. That’s left Wall Street wondering when — or if — Roberts will make a move and what it may be. Here are five possible scenarios:

1. Comcast comes back with a knockout bid
Philadelphia-based Comcast needs to bid $47 a share for the Fox assets, according to BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield. Disney is currently offering $38 a share in cash and stock, a mix that is more tax friendly to the Murdochs and other longtime Fox investors.

An all-cash bid for Fox at US$47 a share, coupled with a higher 15-a-pound per share offer for British broadcaster Sky Plc, would push Comcast’s leverage to five times earnings, according to Greenfield, though cost savings and growth would lower that to less than four by 2021.

Roberts would also have to show the Fox board that Comcast can win regulatory approval — a hurdle Disney cleared last week. Comcast is confident it’s not too far behind in that process, though the U.S. Justice Department only formally began evaluating its offer last month.

In a broader sense, Comcast could win even if Burbank, California-based Disney matched the offer. That’s because the debt added to Disney’s balance sheet would make it tougher for the entertainment giant to compete for future sports programming, Greenfield said.

2. Comcast finds a partner
Comcast has been exploring the idea of teaming up with private equity and strategic investors to buy the Fox assets, which include film and TV studios, cable networks and the pay-TV operations Sky and Star India. The cable giant discussed the idea with Inc., but those talks ended late last year, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Comcast could find a buyer interested in Fox’s regional sports networks, assuming regulators won’t let the company keep them. Disney won Justice Department approval for Fox by agreeing to divest all 22 of those channels.

Billionaire investor John Malone, the largest shareholder in cable giant Charter Communications Inc., recently said that company could buy regional sports networks. A Charter spokesman declined to comment on whether the company would be interested. AT&T Inc., which owns a few regional sports networks, may also be a buyer for the assets, which could fetch more than US$10 billion.

Finding a partner could allow Comcast to offer more for Fox without having to borrow more. On the other hand, if Comcast’s bid fails, the partners may be at a disadvantage in subsequent attempts to buy the sports networks if Disney takes a hard line against companies that forced it to pay more for Fox.

3. Comcast buys something else or several things
Fox’s lineup of movie and TV studios, cable networks and international businesses would provide Comcast with “global reach” and assets that “perfectly complement” the company, Roberts has said.

Losing would leave Roberts having to seek a number of one-off deals to achieve those objectives. On the studio side, the much smaller Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. is often seen as up for grabs. Comcast could still win its separate battle to control Sky, the European pay-TV provider already 39% owned by Fox.

The company could also supercharge its wireless ambitions by seeking a telecom company like Verizon Communications Inc. Comcast could even take a run at Charter in the belief that the Trump administration will look morefavourablyy on cable TV mergers than regulators did under President Barack Obama in 2015 when Roberts failed to buy Time Warner Cable.

4. Comcast splits the assets with Disney
While Disney’s Iger told investors his company has an agreement in place with Fox that “precludes” a carve-up of the assets, the idea has gained traction with some analysts.

Comcast could take the international assets and Disney could keep the domestic properties. The best result for bondholders of all three companies would be for Comcast to buy Sky, according to Neil Begley, a senior vice president at Moody’s. Begley notes that both Comcast and Disney could have their credit ratings cut due to the heavy debt required in a Fox deal.

“A split decision is the best outcome,” Begley said in a research note last week.

5. Comcast walks away
If Comcast walks away from Fox and Sky, its share price may rebound from this year’s 17% loss. Some analysts have suggested investors need to be convinced that Sky is separately a worthwhile target and that Comcast shareholders may prefer that the company pursue a more aggressive share buyback or acquisitions in the wireless space, Gregory Williams, an analyst at Cowen & Co., said in a recent research note.