News Column

Murdoch takes revenge against Time Warner as he plays the media's real-life Game of Thrones: Withdrawal of $80bn bid is unlikely to be the final move by 21st Century Fox

August 7, 2014

Dominic Rushe New York



Trust Rupert Murdoch to spoil the party. There should have been positive headlines yesterday for Time Warner and its number-crunching chief executive, Jeff Bewkes, who has managed to keep critics and shareholders happy since he took over running the media conglomerate in 2008.

The company's latest quarterly results contained much to cheer, but Bewkes's presentation was overshadowed by the news on the eve of the quarterly publication that Murdoch's 21st Century Fox had withdrawn its unsolicited $80bn (pounds 47bn) bid for Time Warner, saying the company had "refused to engage".

Time Warner's share price plummeted in after-hours trading on Tuesday night and continued to fall as Bewkes addressed shareholders yesterday.

It was some revenge for Murdoch. A bid for Time Warner had been painted by many as the crowning deal of his career, his largest ever. It would have been an opportunity to move on the Murdoch narrative after years of legal woes over the phone-hacking scandal at his UK newspapers.

The collapse of the bid comes during a frenzy of speculation over deals in the wake of the planned merger of the US's two largest cable players, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But with Wall Street awash with cash and looking for deals, few media analysts believe the withdrawal of Murdoch's bid is the end of his interest in Time Warner, or of the interest the bid has sparked in others. Bankers were lining up to advise both sides and other interested parties on the next episode in the media's own Game of Thrones saga.

David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent and author of the book Murdoch's World, said: "Anyone who thinks that this is the last move in this particular game of chess hasn't been paying attention.

"This is another way for him to ratchet up pressure on Time Warner. He may not get this. He doesn't always get what he wants, despite his reputation, but this is far from the end."

The last three months have contained some notable triumphs for Time Warner, whose HBO subsidiary produces Game of Thrones, the swords-sex-and-sorcery epic. In July the premium cable channel landed 99 primetime Emmy nominations for its shows which also include True Detective, Veep and Silicon Valley.

The number of nominations was more than double its nearest competitor. Over at its Warner movie studio, The Hobbit movies and The Lego Movie have proved huge international hits. Content of such quality clearly makes Time Warner an attractive target for any company looking to build its business in a media landscape dominated by ever larger distributors. New media players such as Amazon and Netflix are cutting deals with Time Warner for old programming and, as Bewkes was keen to point out, the future looks bright for a company that can consistently offer the sort of content that people want to watch.

But it is perhaps what Time Warner is not that makes it all the more attractive. In June Time Inc, the US's largest magazine publisher and once a jewel in its parent crown, was spun off to the applause of shareholders who see no future in print. The sale was the latest in a series orchestrated by Bewkes to trim Time Warner down to a lean, focused TV and movie powerhouse. One that would - arguably - make an easy fit for a deep-pocketed rival looking to build its content business.

Bewkes declined to comment on the bid yesterday, choosing instead to highlight his strategy, one that has so far paid off for shareholders. Time Warner has generated the highest returns to shareholders of its peers over the past six years. The company handed back $3.5bn to shareholders through a share buyback programme in the 12 months to 1 August and announced plans to buy a further $5bn yesterday. But who in Wall Street cares about long-term, sensible returns to shareholders when there are immediate, massive investment banking fees to be had?

Claire Enders, CEO of Enders Analysis, has been a sceptic on the virtues of a Fox/Time Warner deal from the start.

She pointed out that the deal imploded on the same day that Sprint ended its $32bn pursuit of T-Mobile, citing regulatory concerns. "I think there will be a pause now," she said. "We've just seen the collapse of $100bn worth of deals in an afternoon."

But she said she expected the merry-go-round would begin again before too long. Whether it is driven by logic or not is another matter.

"We are not seeing these transactions as a result of strategic logic; the pump is money," Enders said. In her view, it was clear that Time Warner/Fox would have faced enormous cultural issues merging, and regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic could have tied them up for years. Nor was she sold on the language of synergies so popular among proponents of mega-mergers. "If you believe in the strategic logic nonsense, you are a fool," she said.

But Murdoch may well be counting on Wall Street's appetite for cash now rather than later. His decision to ice the deal just as Bewkes was polishing up his presentation suggests the game is still on. As do some of the analysts' notes that appeared after Time Warner's results.

"Management showed great execution on the cost side to deliver a nice second quarter," said Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker. "But after reiterating 2014 guidance of low-teens earnings per share growth, investors will likely want to hear why management believes the company can deliver better returns than Fox's bid." Such comments will be music to Murdoch's ears.

Captions:

Murdoch may be counting on Wall Street's appetite for cash now, rather than later. Few believe this withdrawal is going to be the end Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty



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Source: Guardian (UK)


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