When it comes to media industry mergers and acquisitions, we've just about reached a tipping point, says Paul S. Scrivano, global head of Ropes & Gray's mergers & acquisitions practice.
The combination of accelerating declines in pay-TV subscribers, the ascent of on-demand services like Netflix (NFLX) - Get Netflix, Inc. Report and Amazon (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report Prime Video and the loosening of federal restrictions on media ownership, is likely to fuel a flurry of deals among TV, film and legacy print publishers, he said.
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"The ground is shifting here and the lines are being changed, everything is in flux," Scrivano said in a phone interview in New York. "Its happening across all aspects of media -- there's a lot of discussion as to deals that may get done that are not yet public yet. Almost more so than at any time I can remember."
Both Discovery Communications Inc. (DISCA) - Get Discovery, Inc. Class A Report and Viacom Inc (VIAB) - Get Viacom Inc. Class B Report are pursuing an acquisition of Scripps Networks Interactive Inc (SNI) , owner of HGTV, the Food Network and DIY. Both potential acquirers covet Scripps mass-market networks that draw particular large audiences of women viewers, coveted by marketers.
Each company stands to gain by packaging their own networks with those of Scripps through either a direct-to-consumer digital service or a non-sports bundle sold through pay-TV operators. A merger stands to strengthen their ability to negotiate licensing fees with pay-TV operators, who are trying to staunch accelerating declines in pay-TV subscribers.
Such pressures pushed AT&T Inc. (T) - Get AT&T Inc. Report and Time Warner Inc. (TWX) to agree to one of the largest media mergers in history, a proposed $85.4 billion transaction that still must win approval from the Department of Justice's antitrust division. That a company as large as Time Warner, owner of TBS, TNT, CNN and felt it necessary to merge with a broadband provider, AT&T, speaks to the sense of urgency among media companies to safeguard their businesses at a time when Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report , Amazon and Apple Inc (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report are fast moving into media distribution and production.
AMX Networks Inc. (AMCX) - Get AMC Networks Inc. Class A Report , whose flagship channel owns the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead, is also frequently mentioned as a takeover target given its relatively small size -- a market capitalization of $4.3 billion -- and the fact that it doesn't own a broadcast or sports network.
"Certainly it's cyclical, but [the media sector] is in a bit of a sea change right now," Scrivano said. "Media is a space where it doesn't seem to take too much to spark a consolidation wave."
A deal may be in the offing around Univision Communications Inc., the Spanish-language broadcaster that has been investing heavily in digital platforms aimed at younger, bi-lingual viewers. Univision, which has struggled under a mountain of debt, may seek to sell a stake in the company to John Malone, the billionaire media mogul who controls Liberty Global Plc (LBTYA) - Get Liberty Global Plc Class A Report , the world's largest cable-TV provider.
The prospect that President Trump's Federal Communications Commission will move to loosen rules that place limitations any one company owning multiple TV-stations in a single market has prompted speculation that Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc.'s (SBGI) - Get Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. Class A Report proposed $6.6 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co. (TRCO) - Get Tribune Media Co. Class A Report won't be the last among TV-station owners.
Scrivano also envisions dealmaking among legacy print publishers, buffeted in recent years by sharp declines in circulation and advertising sales. Despite the over-arching transition to digital platforms, companies like Time Inc. and Tronc Inc., he said, have shown that there's interest in brand names with wide recognition.
"Some of those assets are unique, they're icons," Scrivano said. "There are a number of things that are being discussed right now involving print media companies, and there is absolutely still an interest in that. All of this continues to suggest to me that the industry is ripe for consolidaton."