In what sounds like a plausible story, The Mail reported over the weekend that Comcast, through its NBC Universal arm, is talking to the ITV broadcast network in Britain about a potential $16 billion acquisition. However, Comcast has since denied the rumor, throwing cold water on the idea that the US cable operator could be exploring content interests overseas.
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) spokesperson John Demming repeated to Light Reading the same statement he gave to other news outlets: "We don't comment on M&A rumors, but the speculation on ITV is just completely inaccurate.”
The plausibility of the original story stems from the fact that Comcast is sitting on a pile of cash since losing its bid to take over Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) last spring. Comcast has also made it clear that it continues to be interested in strategic content investments. Beyond acquiring NBCUniversal LLC in early 2011, the cable company more recently poured $200 million each into Vox Media and BuzzFeed. (See Comcast's NBC Invests $200M in Vox Media and NBCUniversal Invests $200M in BuzzFeed.)
From a regulatory perspective, Comcast might run into opposition if it tried to buy out another big broadcast company, but content ownership wasn't one of the primary issues of concern when the US government reviewed the Comcast/TWC deal. Instead, regulators worried about Comcast's distribution business, and the fact that it could try to favor its own video service over those offered by rival online providers. Ownership of NBCU was not a major consideration.
The fact that ITV plc (London: ITV) is a UK company also changes the dynamic, and could alleviate pressure that might otherwise exist if Comcast attempted to acquire another major programmer stateside.
If Comcast were to pursue ITV, the deal could create a wedge between the cable company and Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY). Liberty Global currently owns nearly a 10% stake in ITV, but has said it has no interest in acquiring the broadcaster outright. John Malone, who operates as chairman of Liberty Global, also has a stake in Charter Communications Inc. through holdings owned by Liberty Broadband , a spinoff of Liberty Global which is also chaired by Malone. Charter is set to become the number two cable company in the US if it can pull off its deal to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks .
In both the US and the UK, it appears likely that John Malone and Comcast are going to keep bumping into each other. Currently, relations between Liberty Global and Comcast are reasonably cozy, but as the pay-TV industry globalizes, that might not always be the case. (See Across Continents, Comcast & Liberty Align.)
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading