Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) chairman and CEO Brian Roberts addressed the 800-pound gorilla in the media industry during a Wednesday morning fourth-quarter earnings call.
"With the pace of change in the industry accelerating, many of our peers are reevaluating their strategies, as we've seen recently," Roberts said. "So along the way there may be opportunities for us to create more value for our shareholders like we did with NBCUniversal."
The big move shaking up the industry is Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS) $66 billion purchase of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.'s (FOXA) film and television studios, international satellite TV operations and other assets.
"It is the spark that is going to launch continued M&A activity because of the fear of being left behind or having nothing left to acquire to gain scale and to gain IP," Moody's Investors Service Inc. analyst Neil Begley said of the deal.
For content distributors such as Comcast and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) , content companies Viacom Inc. (VIAB) and CBS Corp. (CBS) and technology industry powers such as Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) , Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) and Facebook Inc. (FB) , the supply of targets or merger partners is getting smaller.
Verizon chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam acknowledged that there is a "a lot of movement" in the media industry during the telecom's Tuesday earnings call. "I can say unequivocally there is nothing going on right now with us considering a large media play," he said.
Verizon has struck modest deals such as the $4.48 billion purchase of Yahoo! Inc. and the $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL. The purchases have modest financial risk, but present a challenge. "Even if you can grow the revenue base on the digital media side, it's hard for it to have that much of an impact on the overall growth of Verizon," said Edward Jones analyst Dave Heger. For context, Verizon's Oath digital division generated $2.2 billion in fourth-quarter sales out of $34 billion in total revenue. The telecom would at least have to look if a company such as CBS were available, Heger suggested.
In Hollywood's dwindling pool of independent studios, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. (LGF.A) and MGM Studios Inc. stand out.
Lions Gate has a $7 billion market cap. Including debt its valuation is about $10 billion, a little more than Verizon paid for AOL and Yahoo! combined. Verizon, Amazon, Viacom and CBS have reportedly looked at the Santa Monica, Calif., and Vancouver, British Columbia, company. Verizon, CBS and Lions Gate declined to comment. Viacom and Amazon did not respond to a query.
The company owns the "Hunger Games" and "The Twilight Saga" franchises and produced episodic titles such as "Orange is the New Black" and "Mad Men." The company bought cable network operator Starz LLC for $4.4 billion in 2016 and Summit Entertainment for $412.5 million in 2012. The largest shareholders are Carl Icahn protege Mark Rachesky and media tycoon John Malone.
MGM is old-school Hollywood. The privately held company is trickier to value, since it doesn't have a public stock. Anchorage Capital Partners, Highland Capital Partners and Solus Alternative Asset Management are the largest backers.
The studio's library includes the "James Bond," "Hobbit" and "Rocky" movie franchises, and TV series such as "Vikings," "The Handmaid's Tale" and "American Gladiators." It has rights to "The Voice," "Survivor," 'The Apprentice," "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and other reality shows.
Though it declined to comment on current strategic options, MGM has been acquisitive. Last year the studio bought Viacom's and Lions Gate's stakes in the Epix television network for $1 billion, and purchased reality show producer Evolution Media. In 2016, MGM bought the 45% position it did not own in United Artists Media Group.
Other independents have sold or found backing over the last five to six years.
Last year Comcast bought DreamWorks Animation for $3.8 billion, while Universal took a minority stake in Steven Spielberg's Amblin Partners. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. (BABA) invested in Amblin in 2016.
Also in 2017, investment firm Content Partners acquired Revolution Studios, which produced "Hellboy," "White Chicks" and "Black Hawk Down," for $400 million.
Overseas deals proliferated in 2016.
Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group Co. Ltd. bought Legendary Entertainment, the studio behind "Jurassic World" and "Godzilla," for $3.5 billion. Singaporean social media group YuuZoo Corp. bought a stake in Relativity Media, the studio behind films such as "The Social Network." Qatari sports and TV group beIN Media Group, formerly part of Al Jazeera Media Network, acquired Miramax.
Disney was an early consolidator, buying Lucasfilm Ltd. for $4 billion in 2012, Marvel Entertainment Inc. for $4 billion in 2009 and Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006.
Against this diminishing pool of independent producers, Silicon Valley's appetite for content is growing.
In a long-shot scenario, Hargreaves suggests that Google or Amazon could bid for Viacom. "We believe Viacom's combination of scaled kids' content library with significant production assets holds meaningful strategic value for companies with direct-to-consumer services," he wrote.
Telecoms, media houses and tech companies have some tough decisions. Buying a studio entails financial risk. Building one from scratch carries an operational risk -- and the fear of being left behind in the race for content.
"If I can acquire a company with significant production and distribution capabilities, hopefully some strong IP and a library," Begley said, "I'm in the game day one."
Editor's note: This article was originally published by The Deal, a sister publication of TheStreet that offers sophisticated insight and analysis on all types of deals, from inception to integration. Click here for a free trial.
Jim Cramer and the AAP team hold positions in Comcast, Alphabet, Facebook and Apple for their Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells CMCSA, GOOGL, FB or AAPL? Learn more now.
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