21st Century Fox confirms that it bid for Time Warner; offer was rejected

Rupert Murdoch, who has spent his life building one of the world’s most powerful media empires, has his eye on another potential conquest.

Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox confirmed Wednesday that it has made a spurned offer to buy Time Warner, a deal that if revived would bring together two giant media empires under the same corporate umbrella. The New York Times, which first reported the proposed deal, pegged Murdoch’s offer at $80 billion.

While Time Warner has rejected the deal, industry analysts said the overture would probably put Time Warner into play and that Fox or another suitor, such as CBS and Disney, could still seal a deal for the company.

If Murdoch were to succeed, the deal would transform the media industry, creating a behemoth with $61 billion in revenue, according to the two companies’ financial filings. It would bring cable channels like Time Warner’s HBO under the same roof as Fox’s movie studios and sports channels. It would also give Fox control of two competing news channels, its subsidiary Fox News and Time Warner’s CNN, a situation that would probably raise significant antitrust issues.

Time Warner’s chief executive, Jeffrey Bewkes, sent employees a video message Wednesday arguing that Murdoch’s offer did not do enough to advance Time Warner’s interests. Over the past few years, Time Warner has hunkered down with its profitable television and film units, spinning off its publishing company Time, cable provider Time Warner Cable and Internet provider AOL.

Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes explains why the Time Warner Board rejected 21st Century Fox's offer to acquire the company. (Time Warner Inc.)

“Quite simply, the board concluded that continuing to execute our strategic plan and our business plans will create significantly more value for the company and our shareholders, and that that’s superior to any proposal that Fox is in a position to offer,” Bewkes said in his video message.

Fox’s spurned overture to Time Warner comes amid a broad consolidation among telecom and cable companies. In February, Comcast announced a $45 billion deal to buy Time Warner Cable, which is being reviewed by regulators. And in May, AT&T said it had agreed to buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion.

These mega-deals have been seen, in part, as an effort by cable companies such as Comcast to gain a better negotiating position against content providers like Fox. Content providers charge cable companies billions of dollars in retransmission fees to distribute their content to households across the country. Cable companies have argued that if those programming costs were lowered, they could pass the savings on to consumers.

“It’s an arms race for negotiating leverage, and everybody’s arming themselves to the teeth,” said longtime telecom industry analyst David Kaut. “In the programming wars, the battles between content and distribution, you’ve got to come to that fight armed to the teeth.”

Analysts said that a Fox-Time Warner deal would probably represent a move in the opposite direction — potentially giving Fox more leverage in its negotiations with cable companies, and, in turn, higher costs for consumers.

“From a consumer perspective, if there were any hope from a potential Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger in driving lower fee payments going through to consumers, [Murdoch’s bid for Time Warner] suggests to me that that’s a pipe dream,” said Paul Sagawa, head of technology, media and telecom research at Sector & Sovereign Research.

In light of such risks to consumers, analysts predicted that the acquisition of Time Warner by Fox or another buyer would draw intense scrutiny from federal regulators as well as consumer advocates and lawmakers.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has been a vocal critic of mega-mergers, said in a statement that she was “concerned that consolidation on both ends of the video market can end up squeezing consumers.”

But these concerns would be unlikely to block a potential deal, analysts said.

“At the end of the day, no one has any illusions that there are any kinds of conditions that can be imposed that will fully rein in the ability of these companies to exact their market power,” said Tuna Amobi, an equity analyst at S&P Capital IQ.

By closing time Wednesday, Time Warner’s stock had jumped 17 percent on the news, while Fox’s fell about 5 percent.

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