Well, it happened. Disney and Fox confirmed today what had been rumored for weeks: The two entertainment giants are joining forces. Disney is buying most of 21st Century Fox for $52 billion, the biggest and most consequential media merger in an era of big and consequential media consolidation deals.
The deal will have a lasting effect on film, television, and the internet. Over the next year, as US regulators decide whether or not to allow the massive takeover, these will be the most important story lines to watch:
If the merger is approved, Disney will own:
- All of Fox’s film studios (20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox 2000)
- Fox’s television studio
- FX Networks
- National Geographic
- Fox’s stake in European broadcaster Sky
- Fox’s stake in North American streamer Hulu
Staying with the hollowed out 21st Century Fox is the Fox broadcast network, Fox News, Fox Sports, and Fox Business. We’ll get to what this deal means for Fox in a moment. Let’s focus on Disney first.
With Fox’s film and TV studios and its cable networks, Disney will acquire the rights to literally hundreds of popular television series and movies. Here are the ones Disney bragged about getting in its press release announcing the deal:
Combining with Disney are 21st Century Fox’s critically acclaimed film production businesses, including Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Fox 2000, which together offer diverse and compelling storytelling businesses and are the homes of Avatar, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Deadpool, as well as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hidden Figures, Gone Girl, The Shape of Water and The Martian—and its storied television creative units, Twentieth Century Fox Television, FX Productions and Fox21, which have brought The Americans, This Is Us, Modern Family, The Simpsons and so many more hit TV series to viewers across the globe.
Disney left quite a lot out. It’s also getting ownership of award-winning FX shows Atlanta, Better Things, American Crime Story (among many others), and a swath of film franchises, including Planet of the Apes, Murder on the Orient Express, Kingsman, Alien, Ice Age, and much, much more.
Why does it matter that Disney own all these things, which constitute an enormous chunk of Hollywood’s most valuable intellectual property? Well…
Imagine all of the properties mentioned above, plus all of Disney’s existing franchises (Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, etc.) combined into one internet streaming service. You won’t have to imagine for long, because that’s pretty much exactly why Disney CEO Bob Iger was so keen on buying all of Fox’s biggest assets.
Disney plans to release a streaming entertainment service in 2019. It would have been quite formidable on its own, even without Fox’s help, but now it will likely be the first true rival to Netflix in the streaming space. Iger said it himself: The deal will “greatly enhance our growing direct-to-consumer offerings.” That means streaming.
What makes Netflix so dominant is its combination of original content (growing by the year), large library of acquired titles, and its global reach. Disney’s takeover of Fox will easily give the company a toehold to compete with Netflix in the United States, but how does it battle the streamer everywhere else? Oh yeah, about that…
The Wall Street Journal points out that one underrated and highly important facet of this deal is Disney’s interest in Sky (paywall), the London-based European broadcaster that already owns the international rights to many films produced by both Disney and Fox. Meaning, with a near 40% stake in Sky, Disney’s international streaming offerings could legitimately compete with Netflix’s not just in North America, but everywhere.
Disney will also acquire Star India, giving the company a huge stake in an increasingly important media market, as well as Fox’s international networks group, which owns more than 350 channels in 170 countries in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Simply put, the deal makes Disney a much more global company and sets the media empire up to wage war with Netflix in every market, on every continent.
Before today, Disney, Fox, and Comcast (NBCUniversal) all shared equal 30% stakes in Hulu (Time Warner owns 10%). But when Disney takes over Fox’s share of the streaming service, it will own 60%, becoming a controlling majority owner, relegating Comcast to minority owner in the process.
Recode reported that Comcast could block Disney from making any meaningful changes to Hulu, forcing the company to sell its new stake in the streamer. In another scenario, Comcast could ask the US Justice Department to force Disney to sell Hulu. (Comcast has long been a silent partner in the streaming service as a condition of its 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal, but that agreement ends in September, before the Disney-Fox deal will be finalized.) So it’s not a sure thing that Disney just takes over the streamer and gets to do whatever it wants with it. Not to mention, once Disney is in control, the other partners could be reluctant to aid the company in its global takeover and thus remove its content from Hulu’s library altogether, leaving Disney to supply the service itself.
But assuming Disney gets to keep its Hulu, and both Comcast and Time Warner stay on as minority owners, the service will become another important asset for the Mouse House as it seeks to enter the future of entertainment.
It’s possible Disney turns Hulu into its upcoming streaming service, or folds it into whatever new service it creates. Or, Disney could keep both Hulu and its new service and package them together into one vast internet experience:
Whatever becomes of Hulu specifically, Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s stake in the streamer allows Iger to hedge his bets, creating multiple ways to take on Netflix in the streaming wars.
You were waiting for this part, weren’t you?
Yes, when Disney acquires Fox’s film studio, it will get the movie and TV rights to the X-Men, Deadpool, Fantastic Four, and other Marvel heroes that have been owned by Fox. That means Wolverine will get to hang out with Spidey, Gambit can engage in witty repartee with Iron Man, and Hulk and The Thing can talk about who is uglier.
While perhaps too much stock is being put into this part of the deal at the expense of the bigger narrative of media consolidation, these characters are the properties that move the needle for companies like Fox and Disney. Disney’s Marvel regaining control of some of its popular heroes is no small feat neither culturally nor financially. It’s also good news for fans of these characters, as Fox’s superhero adaptations have not been nearly as successful Disney’s Marvel movies (though Logan and Deadpool both showed promise recently).
20th Century Fox, we hardly knew ye.
Okay, that may be a bit premature, but it’s clear that Fox’s film business won’t be the same if the merger is approved. The deal marks the first time in modern history that one major film studio has purchased another, eliminating one of the “big six,” and essentially giving Disney control of two-thirds of Hollywood. (The other four major movie studios are Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Sony.)
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the mood inside 20th Century Fox is “apprehensive and morose“:
Disney is eager to take over Fox’s TV production and distribution business, but how it plans to integrate Fox’s film business is considered much more tenuous. There’s widespread speculation that the film operation, headed by Stacey Snider, will be folded into Disney and become a label alongside Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios and Pixar, reducing the overall number of films that the six major studios feed theaters each year.
It’s unclear exactly what kind of organizational or structural changes will take place, but the Hollywood Reporter says to expect at least some layoffs, as Disney won’t need two separate marketing and distribution divisions. Even if 20th Century Fox is kept as a “brand” similar to Marvel or Pixar, at least some of its duties will be covered by Disney, rendering some jobs superfluous.
Fox is keeping its US broadcast network, home to The Simpsons, Empire, and Gotham, but it’s selling its TV production studio to Disney, leaving the Fox network without the company that creates many of its shows.
Fox can still exist without an in-house production company, but it will have to change dramatically. Obviously, it will have to begin buying shows from elsewhere. But as TV critic Alan Sepinwall noted, that’s not really a viable business model. When its existing shows run their courses, Fox will have to drink from a new trough.
What 21st Century Fox chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch does with the Fox network remains to be seen. If the company’s press release is any indication, it will likely keep it, and supplement it with more sports and news coverage. Which brings us to…
What’s left of Fox (hereby dubbed “New Fox”) will have to move forward on its own. 21st Century Fox will spin off its remaining cable channels (Fox News, Fox Sports, etc.) to its shareholders, creating a slimmed down entity of its own. The idea is that a more nimble operation with key stakes in the news and sports businesses will be easy to both maintain and, ideally, grow.
New Fox will be bolstered by three things: sports rights (always lucrative), the news, and affiliate fees. “It is born out of an important lesson I’ve learned in my long career in media: namely, content and news relevant to viewers will always be valuable,” Murdoch said in the company’s press release.
That means Fox News, the conservative cable news channel that has at times acted like state media for the Donald Trump administration, is unlikely to change its ways–at least in the short term. Fox News was one of Murdoch’s biggest money makers before the Disney deal, and it only grows in importance now that the mogul is selling away pretty much all of his other money-making assets. But deal or no deal, the cable network is still faced with existential problems, namely an aging audience.
FX, the cabler that’s broadcast Sons of Anarchy, Justified, The Shield, Fargo, and many other beloved prestige TV fare, now falls under the Disney umbrella. CEO John Landgraf is not only one of the more respected executives in the business, but he’s also the one leading the charge against the Silicon Valley titans that are changing the way TV is made.
We reported this back in August, during Landgraf’s panel at the Television Critics Association where he criticized how companies like Netflix and Amazon add to the “glut of oversupply” plaguing the TV business:
The FX chief criticized Silicon Valley’s business model for television, which forces companies into a “winner take all” environment where they create endless amounts of TV at incredible costs, often operating at significant losses and valuing algorithms, platforms, and scale over a more human element. Meanwhile, networks like FX, Landgraf said, are much more committed to curation, quality control, and exercising an “editorial voice.”
But what happens to FX now that it will be part of a larger company that’s clearly trying to compete with Silicon Valley in its dominance of the global media landscape? Can FX retain its reputation as a selective curator when it’s owned by the Disney behemoth? Will Disney allow Landgraf and company to operate as they have been, churning out great drama after great drama? We can only hope.
Most analysts are speculating that the 86-year-old Murdoch intends to sell off all his assets and ride off into the sunset. His sons, Lachlan and James, could seek positions at Disney, stay with the remnants of Fox, or strike out on their own. The New York Times reported that those close to the Murdochs don’t think the sons will thrive in a company that’s no longer owned by their father (paywall).
The proposed merger will now be intensely scrutinized by US regulators over the next 12 to 18 months—so even if it is ultimately approved, we probably won’t feel its effects for another year or two. Proponents of the deal will have to convince regulators that despite the massive media consolidation, including the folding of one major movie studio into another, that Disney’s takeover of Fox will not create a monopoly. US regulators are already looking over antitrust concerns with AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner, which owns HBO and CNN.
Murdoch might have an easier time with the regulatory process. He’s been said to enjoy a “bromance” with Donald Trump, who could ask that his justice department ensure the veteran media mogul gets exactly what he wants.