While Univision's (UVN) troubled auction is front and center for media dealmakers, another transaction looms on the horizon this summer.
appears open to the idea of offloading some 10 small-and medium-market TV stations. And
John Malone appears to be happy with the prospect of wrangling a deal for cash and some stations from Rupert Murdoch in return for his 18%, or $10 billion, stake in News.
Sources caution that a Malone/Murdoch deal isn't imminent. Given the experience of Univision -- which sought to induce a bidding war for its fast-growth broadcast properties, but has found little interest outside of bickering private equity types -- it's not clear how soon a transaction might take shape.
But if a News Corp./Liberty deal is negotiated, it would settle a long-simmering dispute between Murdoch and Malone. Malone shocked Murdoch two years ago by quietly shifting his longstanding nonvoting stake in News Corp. into a voting stake. A chastened Murdoch quickly put in a poison pill to keep Malone at bay.
A deal would be attractive for Liberty because of its tax efficiencies and because it is said to want to be in cash-generating businesses. The stations would certainly qualify.
Fox owns 35 TV stations, including ones in many major U.S. markets. The group throws off lots of cash and remains profitable.
Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes told UBS analysts last week that an exchange of a portion of News Corp. television stations for Liberty's voting stake in the company remains a possible near-term resolution. Sources say Fox wants to hold onto its stations in places like New York and Los Angeles.
The Federal Communications Commission is likely to soon approve the transfer of TV stations broadcasting licenses from Murdoch himself to News Corp., which is now incorporated in the U.S. from its native Australia. Murdoch personally holds the licenses because he is a U.S. citizen.
UBS research analyst Aryeh Bourkoff wrote after the Ailes meeting that FCC approval of a transfer of the stations "remains an initial gating factor for a potential transaction," though management expects approval in coming weeks.
Swapping out of some stations could also show that Murdoch, widely seen as a media-industry visionary, believes the local TV business does not hold the benefits it once did. The remaining core 25 stations would still allow the company to negotiate strong syndication fees.
Others may see more symbolism in a transaction.
"Rupert is a long-term strategic thinker," says one media analyst. "If he says the stations aren't core to his operations, then it raises serious questions for pure-play TV groups. Strategically, it would show that he doesn't see them as overly valuable."
The relationship between big media and local TV stations appears to be evolving in an awkward fashion. Some have started to question the
synergies across media platforms in many markets, as evidenced by recent turmoil at
, where one investor has called for a breakup of the company along asset lines.
originally reported that Liberty and News Corp. were in discussions about how to unwind Liberty's stake in News Corp.
The two sides have been at loggerheads over the voting stake for the last 18 months, when Malone converted nonvoting shares into voting ones. News Corp. enacted a poison pill provision aimed at preventing Malone from increasing his stake in the company. Malone, in turn, said that he would back off if a tax-efficient deal could be structured.
Speaking at a Deutsche Bank conference recently, Liberty Media chief Greg Maffei acknowledged that both companies have an incentive to move on a deal.
News Corp. has been at the vanguard of developments in new media, as evidenced by its high-profile acquisition of online social network MySpace last year.
BIA Financial, which tracks TV station revenue, estimates that a middle-market station, such as Tampa, Fla., might fetch $375 million, while a smaller-market station, such as the Fox station in Ocala, Fla., might garner $120 to $130 million.