Two of the world’s biggest media and entertainment companies are reportedly poised to pull the trigger on the biggest shake-up in Hollywood for decades.
21st Century Fox is in talks to sell its entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co for a reported $60bn.
Should the deal go ahead, it would bring together the 21st Century Fox film studio that made hits such as Avatar, X-Men and Ice Age together with Disney’s film assets, which include Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm.
The pair are respectively the fourth and second biggest film studios in Hollywood.
Included in the proposed sale are Fox’s prized US cable networks, including FX and the National Geographic Channel, as well as international pay television assets including Star TV in India.
It also includes Fox’s 39.1% stake in Sky plc, the owner of Sky News.
Fox has been trying to buy full control of Sky for the last year and, should the sale go ahead, it would pave the way for Disney to take over Sky.
Other assets on the table include Fox’s 30% stake in Hulu, the US streaming service, in which Disney is also a shareholder.
A deal would put Disney in a much stronger position in which to compete with so-called ‘over-the-top’ streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix – which supply content direct to consumers instead of via traditional broadcasting networks – as well as enabling its film studio to leapfrog Warner Brothers to become Hollywood’s leading player.
It would also give Disney a much more rounded TV offering.
Fox’s television studios produce edgier, more adult-oriented shows, such as Family Guy, The Simpsons, Modern Family and This Is Us, than the more traditional family entertainment in which Disney’s TV arm specialises.
And it would also make Disney, which is more focused on the United States, much more of an international media company.
Fox is presently the more geographically diverse of the pair.
Disney’s theme park business, which accounts for 20% of its revenues, could also expect a boost from the addition of popular Fox franchises such as X-Men.
Following the deal, 21st Century Fox’s remaining assets would be news and sports, including the Fox News and Fox Business News channels as well as Fox Sports 1 and a number of local US TV stations.
News and sport are seen as being less exposed to a downturn in advertising because they tend to be watched by audiences in real time.
Rupert Murdoch, the executive co-chairman of Fox, is also thought to have noted how CBS, the US broadcaster, was rewarded with a higher stock market rating by Wall Street once it was separated from the media conglomerate Viacom to become a more focused business.
There has been speculation that, following a sale to Disney, Mr Murdoch would seek to reunite Fox with News Corporation, the owner of newspaper titles such as the Wall Street Journal, The Sun and The Times, from which it was demerged four years ago.
Mr Murdoch and his family trust are the biggest shareholders in both companies, and the main reason why Fox’s proposed £18bn takeover of Sky has taken so long to complete is because the UK government and Ofcom, the UK broadcasting regulator, have questioned whether placing Sky News and News Corp’s British newspaper titles under common ownership would reduce plurality in the UK news industry.
The transaction is currently being scrutinised by the Competition and Markets Authority.
If Fox were to sell its stake in Sky to Disney then, under the UK’s Takeover Code, Disney would be obliged to launch a takeover bid for the whole of Sky.
Disney is not the only company with which Fox has been negotiating.
Comcast, the US cable titan and owner of NBC, had been interested in Fox’s entertainment assets, as had Verizon, the US mobile phone operator.
However, Disney is always thought to have been in pole position, as any deal would be in shares and Mr Murdoch is said to prefer the idea of holding Disney’s stock rather than that of Comcast or Verizon.
Any deal is likely to come under the scrutiny of US regulators.
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