James Murdoch could be the next CEO of Disney, a report says. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
If companies follow through on possible Disney takeover of Fox, James and his father, Rupert, could take top jobs, Financial Times reports.
The Fox boss James Murdoch is reportedly being considered as a potential successor to Bob Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney, if the two companies reach agreement on a possible takeover.
According to the Financial Times, Rupert Murdoch and his younger son, James, could take senior roles at a combined company if a deal is struck. Iger, 66, is due to retire in 2019 and James Murdoch, 44, currently chief executive of 21st Century Fox and chairman of the satellite broadcaster Sky, is a possible successor.
Disney began holding on-and-off discussions to take over some of Fox’s major assets last month. The sale would include Fox’s movie studio, cable channels and international units – Sky and Star India. It could be worth more than $60bn and would reshape the media landscape.
But Disney is not Fox’s only suitor. Comcast, the US’s largest cable operator and owner of NBC Universal, the TV network and movie studio company, is also reported to be assessing a bid, as is Verizon, the largest US telecoms group.
Neither company was immediately available for comment. “No promises have been made,” one person briefed on the talks told the FT.
Any such deal is likely to run into trouble with shareholders who have consistently criticized the Murdochs over corporate governance. The takeover comes as their stewardship is under question following a series of sexual harassment charges at Fox. Those allegations have triggered an official inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK into plans to buy the rest of Sky.
Iger has been Disney’s boss since 2005 and is one of the most highly rated executives in media. The company has, however, struggled to groom a successor. Disney’s chief operating officer, Tom Staggs, once seen as Iger’s top pick, resigned in 2016 after the board failed to assure him he would be Iger’s heir. More recently, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has been tipped as a potential hire.
The possible Fox sale comes in as the media landscape is being reshaped by the entry of new players including Apple, Amazon and Netflix. Pressure on cable subscriptions and competition for assets has set off a wave of mega-deals.
AT&T is in the midst of an $85.4bn takeover of Time Warner, but that deal is now struggling. The US justice department sued to block the deal last month, arguing that a takeover would “substantially lessen competition, resulting in higher prices and less innovation for millions of Americans”.
That deal is now heading to court, with AT&T suggesting the justice department stepped in because of Donald Trump’s open antipathy to the “fake news” he claims is being generated by Time Warner’s CNN.
Comcast, too, was heavily criticized by US officials during its ultimately successful bid for NBC Universal in 2009, and regulators appear concerned about media mergers that combine content – films and TV – with delivery – cable and satellite.
According to the FT, the Murdochs favour a deal with Disney, as they believe it poses the lowest regulatory risk. Competition from the tech giants may have strengthened arguments for the merger of content companies.
According to CNBC, which first broke the news of the discussions, Disney and Fox are now close to making an agreement and an announcement could come as early as next week.
The sale of the Murdochs’ prime media assets would leave them with control of News Corp, which owns a portfolio of newspapers – including the Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Sun.
Rupert Murdoch’s apparent willingness to sell most of 21st Century Fox to Disney suggests the media mogul’s interest in taking full control of Sky has unexpectedly diminished.
The Sky deal has proved problematic for the Murdochs since their bid was first announced last December, with the takeover facing regulatory hurdles and political opposition in the UK, with allegations of sexual harassment at Fox News being one of the reasons used to justify referring the takeover to the competition watchdog.
It had widely been considered that it was a longstanding ambition of Murdoch to take full control of Sky. The mogul has not completely controlled the company since 1990, consistently holding just 39% of the shares. He also tried to buy it in 2011, but the takeover was derailed at the last minute by the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
A sale to Disney of the Sky stake and the 20th Century Fox film studio would therefore represent a dramatic U-turn in strategy for the family and raise questions about their ambitions in the media industry. Rupert Murdoch has traditionally been a buyer of assets rather than a seller and, given that he is 86 years old, the Disney deal would leave a diminished family empire for his sons Lachlan and James.
As a result, some believe that talks of a sale of are exaggerated. One senior media source said the leak of the talks between Disney and Fox could be Rupert Murdoch “playing games”. They added: “This is either putting a ‘for sale’ sign up on their assets, or it is a message to Time Warner that they have a last chance to join them.”
Fox tried to buy Time Warner, the owner of Warner Brothers, HBO and CNN, in a $80bn (then £46.7bn) deal three years ago. It eventually withdrew its bid after failing to reach an agreement with Time Warner, which subsequently struck a deal with telecoms group AT&T. However, this tie-up is yet to be approved by President Trump’s administration and a story last week by the Wall Street Journal – a Murdoch newspaper – said that the government may attempt to block the transaction.
The Murdochs have long argued that scale in the media industry would be vital to compete against global technology giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix, who are transforming TV, film and media. Their media empire is larger than many, but the 21st Century Fox business itself is just a third the size of Disney and a 10th of Amazon.
The question is whether Fox is large enough to compete in the Silicon Valley streaming-media era. In a speech at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge in September, James Murdoch talked again of the importance of scale, saying: “Tomorrow’s commercial media needs to be able to compete globally, and at unprecedented scale …
“Although brands that matter and diverse storytelling will remain necessary conditions, we will still need the freedom to take risks and the strength to compete that only comes from global scale.
“Scale provides the confidence to invest strategically, take risks, and support the development of new technologies and innovation – critical attributes in this dynamic period.”
That was considererd an argument as to why Fox should be allowed to buy Sky, but with hindsight it could also refer to Fox itself, given the Disney talks were already ongoing.
Fox was speaking to Disney in the last few weeks about a deal that would involve the sale of its movie studios, cable services FX and National Geographic and international assets such as Star India and as well as the 39% stake in Sky. The deal would not include Fox’s US TV network, Fox News or its sports channels .
For the Murdochs, the deal would represent a retreat in entertainment, but it would also allow them to focus on news and sport in the US, the UK and Australia. That would pave the way for the remainder of Fox to be potentially reunited with their other business, News Corp, which owns the Sun, the Times, the Wall Street Journal and the largest newspaper operation in Australia.
Barton Crockett at FBR Capital Markets said: “It would seem strange to us that Sky chairman James Murdoch would let Fox exit Sky before completing the bid to buy the 61% they don’t currently own.”
But, he added, if there was a switch from Fox to Disney, that could also make a takeover of the satellite broadcaster easier to complete: “We suppose Disney could face less regulatory scrutiny for the Sky acquisition than Fox.”
Were such a takeover to take place, it would mean that Sky and the Fox film studio would be swallowed up by the vast company behind not just the the historic Disney studio, but superhero factory Marvel, Lucasfilm, the maker of Star Wars, and the Pixar animation studio, creating a business with a market value of close to $200bn (£150bn).