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21st Century Fox Shares Soar on Reports of Comcast Acquisition Overture, Verizon Interest

Comcast has approached 21st Century Fox about acquiring key assets including its movie and TV studio and selected cable networks.

The move, first reported Thursday evening by the Wall Street Journal, comes a week after the media world was jolted by reports that Disney held preliminary talks with Fox about acquiring the same collection of assets in recent weeks. Those talks were said to have broken down quickly over price, but the fact that the Murdochs would entertain such an offer at all had the effect of turning Fox into an acquisition target. Indeed, Dow Jones reported Thursday that telco giant Verizon is also eyeing a possible Fox bid.

The chase for some of Fox’s most prominent assets also comes as the AT&T-Time Warner merger hangs in the balance with the Justice Department expected to take steps that would force AT&T to radically alter the deal or block it outright, which would put Time Warner back in play.

Fox shares shot up more than 8% in after-hours trading after the CNBC report landed just before 5 p.m. ET. Any deal involving Fox would have to secure the blessing of Rupert Murdoch and the family trust that tightly controls nearly 40% of the voting shares in the company. As of Thursday evening, 21st Century Fox has a market cap of $53.8 billion. Fox’s stock price spiked 10% earlier this month on the news of the stealth talks with Disney.

A rep for Comcast declined to comment. Fox reps could not immediately be reached for comment.

Comcast’s overture is surprising given the Justice Department’s tough stance on AT&T-Time Warner. Comcast’s size and scope — the combination of its cable distribution heft and its content holdings in NBCUniversal — has made it a frequent target for critics of media consolidation.

The union of 20th Century Fox’s film and TV production assets with NBCU’s Universal Pictures and Universal Television operations would greatly expand NBCU’s share of the content market. The cable programming assets in the mix are believed to be Fox’s FX Networks and National Geographic channel group, as well as Fox’s collection of more than 300 Fox, FX and National Geographic-branded international channels. A deal would also likely include Fox’s share of Hulu, the streaming service jointly owned by Comcast, Fox, Disney and Time Warner.

Comcast only has a tiny footprint overseas, but domestically it already ranks as one of the biggest cable programmers with USA Network, Bravo, Syfy, Oxygen, CNBC, MSNBC, E! and NBC Sports in the fold. Fox’s international TV assets would greatly expand Comcast’s international reach. Fox has a big footprint in Asia through the Star satellite TV platform and a sizable stake in the European satcaster Sky.

Like Disney, Comcast’s view of the deal reportedly does not include the Fox broadcast network, the local Fox TV stations or the Fox News and Fox Sports operations. Combining those with NBCUniversal’s existing sports and news assets would probably be an insurmountable regulatory hurdle. Nor could Comcast reasonably expect to sidestep the existing FCC regulation that bars a single entity from owning more than one of the Big Four broadcast networks. NBCUniversal is already home to NBC.

Details of Verizon’s interest in Fox are unclear. The telco would not face the same issues of overlapping content and distribution operations as Comcast or Disney, or another one of Fox’s film- and TV-centric rivals, so Verizon might well make a run at the entire company.

Verizon declined to comment.

The heightened level of acquisition chatter around Fox comes just a day after leaders told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting that the conglomerate built up since the 1980s by Rupert Murdoch was not in the category of “sub-scale” players facing pressure to sell as the media business undergoes massive shifts spurred in part by the rise of digital behemoths like Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon.

“There’s a lot of talk about the growing importance of scale in the media industry,” 21st Century Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch said Wednesday. “Sub-scale players are finding it difficult to leverage their positions in new and emerging video platforms. Let me be very clear: We are not in that category. We have the required scale to continue to both execute on our aggressive growth strategy and deliver significant increased returns to shareholders.”

During Fox’s quarterly earnings call last week, Lachlan Murdoch and CEO James Murdoch would not comment on the Disney rumors but emphasized that the company is not in duress.

“We are singularly and intently focused on delivering on our strategic plan,” Lachlan Murdoch said. “Our businesses and brands are stronger than ever.”

Fox is in the thick of trying to add to its international profile by acquiring the remaining 61% of Sky that it does not already own. That $15 billion deal has been mired in a regulatory review in the U.K. fueled by concerns about the Murdochs’ collective muscle in the market, including the influence of the publishing assets controlled by the Murdochs through the News Corp. side of the family empire. Last week Fox reiterated its confidence that the Sky transaction will close by mid-2018. Even if that deal does not come to fruition, the 39% interest in the MVPD serving the U.K., Ireland, Germany and Italy is said to be an attractive asset for Disney and Comcast.

(Pictured: Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts and 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch)

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