Private equity giant KKR has been on an acquisition tear in Germany. Comcast scooped up Sky in a dramatic bidding battle last year. John Malone’s Liberty Global is poised to be flush with cash later this year if the company’s $22 billion sale of cable operations in Germany and Eastern Europe to Vodafone is approved by regulators.
The U.K.’s ITV and France’s Canal Plus are among the marquee media assets in Europe that are seen as potential acquisition targets or potential buyers. It’s clear that the M&A fever that has gripped the largest U.S. conglomerates has spread across the Atlantic.
“Now more than ever, Europe needs strong competition from scaled national challengers willing and able to invest in next-generation wireless, video and broadband services,” Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries said in May when the Vodafone sale was announced.
Europe has long been less concentrated when it comes to media ownership, in part because the privatization push for the television industry only began in the 1980s in many markets. But Europe is feeling the gyrations of disruption as Netflix and other multinational outfits have planted roots in the region.
“With Disney and Apple entering the global market for content in a serious way, there have to be larger entities to compete with them,” says Thomas Dey, president and CEO of ACF investment bank. “I think everybody is recognizing that to compete, you’re going to have to be big or become obsolete.”
As the streaming wars go global, media giants are jockeying for advantage by scooping up content and distribution assets. The rapid growth of the streaming market has also helped put the spotlight on production companies that might not have been on the radar before. To wit, Dey points to the success of Italian drama series “Gomorrah” bringing new attention to Italy’s long-established Cattleya production company. ITV bought a majority stake in Cattleya in late 2017.
“The portability of content has made local distinctions less relevant,” says Sean Cohan, president and chief business officer for Wheelhouse Entertainment, who previously headed international operations at A+E Networks. “Making German content that can travel around Europe via Netflix or Amazon makes it a lot more interesting to combine production assets in multiple territories.”
In February, KKR swooped on two big media players in Germany inside of a week: Tele Munchen Group, the independent film and TV production-distribution outfit, and film distributor Universum.
The acquisitions are designed to help KKR build what it has described as “a large independent German content platform.” KKR made a point of expanding its presence in Germany by opening a Frankfurt office for the first time last year. Fred Kogel, a Euro entertainment veteran who has held top posts at Germany’s ZDF, Kirch Media and Constantin Film, has been tapped to lead the venture that will consolidate Tele-Munchen, Universum and presumably other acquisitions.
Philipp Freise, head of the European technology, media and telecommunications industry team at KKR, says the private equity giant’s goal is “to build something new in the film and TV business: A platform that covers the entire value chain from film set to cinema and TV and which we will build out further through acquisitions.”
KKR sees the fragmentation of disciplines in media as an opportunity in Germany and other markets to create what executives call Germany’s “go-to” company for creative talent.
Comcast is betting big on growth in Europe through its $40 billion acquisition of Sky. The U.S. cable giant fought off 21st Century Fox and Disney last year in a dramatic bidding process that culminated last September. A revved-up Sky will surely be a competitor and potential partner to KKR’s ambitions in the German market. Sky at present serves the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.
Comcast went after Sky in part because it desperately wants to diversify its revenue base, which is largely rooted in the U.S. Sky’s core business is one that Comcast knows well — selling cable and Internet packages to consumers. But Sky also has potential to serve as a crucial component of the streaming packages that Comcast hopes to launch in 2020, starting in the U.S.
Sky is “a truly unique company that combines a direct-to-consumer business similar to Comcast Cable, with brands and content ownership economics like we have at NBCUniversal,” Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts said during Comcast’s quarterly earnings call in January. “Sky operates in significantly underpenetrated markets and has terrific long-term growth ahead of it, including the potential to expand into new markets.”
Dey, of ACF, sees the entry of U.S. majors a la Comcast and private equity giants such as KKR as a signal that “provincialism” in European media is soon to give way to consolidation among players with visions that span borders.
“Anyone who doesn’t adapt will be run over in the process,” Dey predicts. “I think that this will happen at a tremendous pace in the next three years.”