Comcast and Disney for months have been aggressively seeking to buy up certain Fox assets. The Disney bid has been accepted by Fox management, but will be decided when Fox shareholders on the Disney bid on July 27th. Meanwhile, Comcast is making its own offer for both the Fox assets, and this week it increased its offer for the that Fox does not currently own in Sky, the largest pay TV service in Europe.
The decision is ultimately up to shareholders, and it appears that antitrust considerations should not be a determining factor. In my view, the Comcast bid should not face any significant antitrust obstacles, and if anything should raise less antitrust concerns than the Disney bid that has already received antitrust clearance, subject to certain divestiture conditions.
The in play are most of the company, excluding Fox News and other key assets. Specifically, Comcast and Disney are bidding for the Twentieth Century Fox movie and tv studios, the FX channels, the regional Fox sports channels, Fox’s controlling interest in Sky and National Geographic Partners, and its non-controlling interest in Hulu, among other assets. Not included in the transaction are Fox News, Fox Business Network, the sports channels FS1 and FS2, the Fox Broadcasting Company, and the Fox television stations. Nearly three-fourths of the Fox assets subject to the acquisition, including the Sky and Star India businesses, are overseas and thus do not raise any domestic antitrust concerns.
This analysis is based on the developments in the bidding for the Fox assets and Sky as of July 12, 2018. Of course, anything can change at any moment, especially with the July 27th vote quickly approaching.
The Disney Bid
The Disney bid received from the Department of Justice in late June under the DOJ’s “FastPass approval” process. To obtain this expedited approval, Disney promised to divest the 22 Fox regional sports networks in response to DOJ concerns about the horizontal overlap with ESPN and other sports programming assets currently owned by Disney. Disney had previously carved out of the deal two national Fox sports channels, FS1 and FS2.
Notably, the Disney bid is structured so that it does not require any license transfers that would trigger a Federal Communications Commission review, so Disney only needs regulatory consent from DOJ for the transaction. Avoiding the FCC review means that the transaction is not subject to review under the FCC’s vague “public interest” standard, which is important for regulatory clearance because the DOJ review is limited to the economic impact of the transaction.
The DOJ approval for the Disney bid is somewhat surprising because the approval conditions were limited to sports channels, but not to the horizontal overlap between the Disney and Fox production studios. Disney’s studio is the market leader in terms of movie box office revenues, and Fox studio is one of its leading competitors.
Moreover, the DOJ does not appear to be concerned about the impact of the proposed merger on Hulu. Combining the Disney and Fox shares in Hulu would give Disney majority control over Hulu, the video streaming company that is by Fox, Disney, Comcast and Time Warner. Hulu is an important distribution outlet for movies, so giving Disney control over Hulu has a post-merger vertical implication of a Disney transaction. It may be overly optimistic to conclude that the DOJ learned from its recent failed challenge to the AT&T/Time Warner merger to not try to challenge the vertical aspects of another merger so quickly. It should be noted, however, that Hulu is and may not be financially viable as currently structured, and Disney is that giving it majority control would give Disney the incentive to invest heavily in Hulu so that it will survive.
The Comcast Bid
Comcast evidently is seeking a similar FastPass approval from DOJ for its bid for the Fox assets. The Fox board has suggested that the Comcast bid raises more antitrust concerns than the Disney bid. That may be true in the sense that Disney has received FastPass approval and Comcast so far has not. But looking strictly at the economic implications of the Comcast bid, the antitrust concerns if anything are less for Comcast.
Comcast’s horizontal overlaps with the Fox assets are similar to those that Disney has. Comcast arguably may have a more direct overlap in sports programming, but Comcast, like Disney, has indicated that it is willing the overlap by divesting any regional sports channels that raise concerns with the DOJ. Comcast also has a studio overlap with Fox because it owns Universal Studios. But Universal is much smaller than Disney’s studio, so if DOJ didn’t object to combining the Disney and Fox studios, it is difficult to see how it could object to the Comcast studio overlap. And the Hulu issue is largely the same for Comcast as for Disney—either one would come away with majority control over Hulu.
Comcast, with its cable system, may raise more vertical antitrust concerns than Disney if it acquired the Fox assets. But these are vertical concerns to the ones raised by DOJ in its recent failed challenge to the AT&T/Time Warner challenge. To the extent that Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Fox’s assets, akin to the AT&T/Time Warner merger, is largely a vertical merger combining programming distribution facilities with programming content, there is no reason to think a court would view the competitive analysis much differently. Moreover, as Judge Leon pointed out in his ruling in the AT&T/Time Warner case, any vertical antitrust concerns have to be weighed against the economic benefits of the transaction. In the rapidly changing communications and media environment, the proposed transaction will strengthen Comcast's ability to compete with the growing market power of web giants like Google and Facebook and online powerhouses like Netflix.
Sky and a Possible Division of Assets
Another possibility is that Comcast and Disney decide to divide up the Fox assets. Comcast is aggressively pursuing Sky, the largest pay TV service in Europe. Fox owns 39% of Sky, which is enough to give it managerial control over it, and is attempting to buy the rest of Sky. If the Fox bid for Sky succeeds and then Disney buys the Fox assets, Disney would come away with both control and a large majority of the shares in Sky. But separately from Comcast’s bid for the Fox assets, Comcast is also bidding against Fox for the shares of Sky that Fox doesn’t own. The Sky bidding has little direct impact on antitrust review in the U.S.
A possible resolution of the Disney/Comcast bidding could be that Disney and Fox let Comcast acquire the non-Fox shares of Sky and then Disney sells the Fox shares in Sky to Comcast. That way Disney would acquire most of the U.S. assets in Fox being sold, while Comcast would come away with Sky. believe this is the best outcome for both companies, because they would each come away with significant assets while taking on less debt. One problem with this scenario is that Disney’s bid for the Fox assets prohibits it from talking directly to Comcast.
ConclusionTransactions the size of the Disney or Comcast acquisitions of the Fox assets bear careful scrutiny, and I am not rendering any final judgments here. But if the Disney proposal can obtain antitrust clearance with only relatively minor divestitures, there is no reason to believe that a Comcast bid should face any greater regulatory obstacles. Thus, the resolution of these bids will likely come down to what the Fox shareholders choose to do, which should not be affected by U.S. antitrust considerations.