Netflix could be a surprise winner in Comcast and Disney’s bidding war for Fox

Whichever wins will be gunning for Netflix, so let them take each other down a peg first.
Whichever wins will be gunning for Netflix, so let them take each other down a peg first.
Image: Reuters/Paul Hanna
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The more Comcast’s Brian Roberts and Disney’s Bob Iger duel over Rupert Murdoch’s Fox media empire, the better it could be for Netflix’s Reed Hastings.

Disney is launching a family-friendly Netflix rival next year with its own content. It also had been planning to use the content it was going to buy from 21st Century Fox, like its movies and TV shows, to fortify another streaming competitor, Hulu, which it partly owns. Combined with Disney’s sports streaming service, ESPN Plus, the Disney-Fox deal had the potential to set Disney up as a real force in the streaming world. Now, that’s in doubt because Comcast has bid to steal Fox out from under Disney.

Comcast offered $65 billion in cash for the company yesterday, topping Disney’s earlier $52 billion stock offer. Disney will likely counter, which could start a bidding war. “Comcast’s bid for Fox seems more like an opening salvo in a bidding war than it does a best and final bid,” MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett wrote in a report (login required) today, June 14. Fox is considering canceling or postponing its July 10 shareholder vote on the Disney-Fox merger while this plays out.

The best outcome for Netflix would be some sort of split of Fox’s assets that sees its TV and film businesses, along with its 30% stake in Hulu, and its 39% share of European TV provider Sky fall into different hands. ”A bidding war and potentially a breakup up of some key assets to multiple bidders to navigate any regulatory hurdles would be a major win for Hastings & Co. not to have all these assets under one hood,” Daniel Ives at GBH Insights, wrote in a note today.

If Disney wins all, it would control about 40% of the box office, more than a dozen of the top US TV networks, and one of Netflix’s top US rivals, Hulu. (Disney and Comcast each own 30% of Hulu. Turner, soon to be in the hands of AT&T, owns the remaining 10%.) That’s a lot of content it could withhold from Netflix and use to prop up its competitors. Disney is ending its deal to send its new movies to Netflix in 2019, in preparation for its streaming service’s launch. And Netflix has been poaching creators from Disney, Fox, and elsewhere, signing them to long-term deals to shore up its own content pipeline.

Meanwhile, Comcast’s entertainment arm, NBCUniversal, had been in early talks to start a streaming service with Warner Bros.—also soon to be owned by AT&T—CNBC reported June 13. That may not happen if Comcast buys Fox, CNBC said. Comcast, which would then gain the majority stake in Hulu, could also become a major streaming player down the line; it already sells a live-TV streaming service, Xfinity Stream, to broadband customers in some markets. But Disney’s standalone services are more immediate threats to Netflix because of the company’s breadth of TV and movies, and collection of popular franchises, like Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar’s titles.

Some analysts are skeptical that either Disney or Comcast would be willing to budge on their proposals. Rich Greenfield at BTIG Research argued the winner will ultimately take all (login required). And Comcast’s chief financial officer Michael Cavanagh suggested as much on a call with investors yesterday. “We’re in this,” he said. “We like everything about this transaction. And that is our focus, to do everything that we… discussed.”

Either way, Netflix’s Hastings will certainly be watching from the stands to see which media giant loses first blood.