Liberty Global’s acquisition of Virgin Media pits titans against each other

Richard Branson finds himself in the middle of a rivalry.
Richard Branson finds himself in the middle of a rivalry.
Image: Getty Images / Rosie Greenway
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Update (Feb. 5, 11.50pm EST): A deal for Liberty Global to buy Virgin Media has now been struck, for $15.75 billion in cash and stock (over $23 billion including debt). The price represents a 24% premium on where Virgin Media’s shares were last trading.

Original story (Feb. 5, 11.40am EST)

The possible takeover of Virgin Media has all the ingredients of a more exciting “Citizen Kane“: Three media empires, three men with massive egos, and a decade of rivalry between them.

Liberty Global, America’s second largest cable company, which is owned by US billionaire John Malone, is in talks to purchase the British cable television provider, founded by British business magnate Sir Richard Branson. Virgin Media has confirmed that the two companies were in discussion “concerning a possible transaction,” which could be completed this week.

Virgin’s almost 5 million cable customers in the UK make it second only to News Corporation’s British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) in the pay-television cable market. Acquiring Virgin would therefore pit Malone—and to a lesser extent, Branson, who owns only 3% of the company, though he earns millions from licensing the Virgin brand—directly against Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corporation, and Malone’s one-time nemesis.

Almost every commentary debating the reliability of Murdoch’s decision-making highlights the time when Malone, 10 years Murdoch’s junior, outsmarted him in 2004. Malone had stepped aside from a bid for US satellite TV company DirectTV, giving Murdoch room to buy the company (and realize a life-long dream of creating a global satellite television empire). It turned out, however, that Malone had been quietly amassing an 18% stake in News Corp. Murdoch eventually gave up his prized satellite company at a knockdown price in 2006, in exchange for Malone’s shares. Malone was once quoted as saying, “Don’t ever bid against Rupert Murdoch for anything Rupert wants, because if you win, you lose. You will have paid way too much.”

Now, however, Murdoch and Malone’s business ventures are looking increasingly evenly matched. Liberty has been picking up television companies over the past year, making up a total of eight deals worth $1.1 billion, Bloomberg points out. News Corp isn’t far behind, with seven deals worth $1.33 billion. Both men have stakes in media businesses across Europe. Malone has about 18.4 million subscribers in his companies in 11 European countries. Murdoch’s companies have about 19 million. Though News Corp is due to be split into two, cleaving off the publishing arm that got embroiled in scandal in 2011 in the UK, Murdoch will remain CEO of the entertainment division, which is still going strong.

Whether Malone’s reach in Europe could hasten what some have called the descent of Murdoch’s empire remains to be seen. Malone, who has reportedly compared himself to the secretive media mogul in “Citizen Kane,” has at least been clear about one part of his strategy with Murdoch. “Rupert’s ten years older than me. I plan to outlive him,” he once said.