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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Comcast offers Dh133bn for Murdoch's Sky

Given the strategic importance of Sky to Fox and Disney, a counter offer well above Comcast’s is now very likely, expert says

Battle is hotting up as rivals bid for Sky. Ben Stanbsall/AFP
Battle is hotting up as rivals bid for Sky. Ben Stanbsall/AFP

Comcast jumped into the fray for Sky, challenging Rupert Murdoch’s 21 Century Fox and Walt Disney with a cash offer valuing the business at £22.1 billion (Dh133.22bn) and opening the possibility of a bidding contest for the UK’s biggest pay-TV company.

After months spent scoping out Sky’s technology platform and content proposition of sports and entertainment across five countries, the owner of NBCUniversal offered £12.50 per Sky share on Tuesday. That exceeds the £10.75 offered by Fox for the 61 per cent stake it doesn’t already own in the European broadcaster by about 16 per cent.

Comcast sprung the offer on Sky on Tuesday morning, its timing suggesting it sees an opening to win over UK officials and investors. Fox has been struggling to secure regulatory approval for its bid and some Sky holders have been agitating for a better offer after Disney’s $52.4bn agreement in December to buy most of Fox’s film and TV assets, including its stake in Sky. Fox would hand full control of Sky to Disney if its takeover is successful.

Fox will be furious after Comcast’s bid, said Crispin Odey, Murdoch’s former son-in-law and founder of hedge fund manager Odey Asset Management, which owns a 0.8 per cent stake in Sky according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “This is tanks on their lawn,” said Mr Odey, who has been pushing for a higher offer for Sky.

Sky shares rose as much as 20 per cent to 1,323.50 pence, higher than both bids and the most since Fox’s offer in December 2016.

Given the strategic importance of Sky to Fox and Disney, a counter offer well above Comcast’s is now very likely, said Jerry Dellis, an analyst at Jefferies in London. Disney chief executive Bob Iger called Sky a “crown jewel” among Fox assets in December.

“It’s obviously a huge gauntlet that’s been laid down to the Murdochs in relation to their pre-existing offer,” said Alice Enders, head of research at Enders Analysis. Sky’s success at the Premier League soccer rights auction this month made it more desirable, she said. “Sky is a very attractive business.”

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Sky declined to comment while representatives for Fox and Disney didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Comcast chairman and chief executive Brian Roberts said he’s prepared for the Murdochs to spurn Comcast’s advance. The proposal is structured so that Comcast will be successful as long as it brings more than 50 per cent of Sky shareholders to its side.

“We’d prefer 100 per cent but it’s not a condition,” Mr Roberts said. Comcast would settle with owning Sky alongside Fox or Disney as minority shareholders, he said. “We respect that maybe they don’t want to sell, but that will be something discussed further down the line.”

Driven by its interest in controlling Sky, Comcast had offered $60bn for much of Fox in December before Fox chose Disney’s lower offer, a person familiar with the matter said at the time. Comcast was considering making another bid for Fox assets this month, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Fox preferred to sell assets to Disney in part because it believed that deal would present fewer regulatory hurdles, people familiar with the matter have said. Comcast is the biggest US cable-TV operator and also owns one of the largest film and television groups, NBCUniversal.

It’s Sky’s technology that first lured Comcast. On a trip to the UK in November with Dave Watson, head of Comcast Cable, Mr Roberts suggested jumping in a taxi and going to a shopping centre to get an in-store demo of Sky’s products. They spent at least an hour at a Sky store going through every feature and comparing it to Comcast’s own X1 platform, which lets subscribers search for movies and TV shows through a Netflix-like user interface and a voice-activated remote control, Mr Roberts said.

“We were really terribly impressed,” hesaid. “Seeing it again and listening to the passion of the sales, and looking at the product, and seeing the success in their earnings - all those things combined to reinforce what a number of us have known for years, this is a jewel.”