Who Might Buy CNN?
AT&T says it won’t sell the cable news network, but who — Murdoch, Bloomberg, Bezos — may be lining up in case CEO Randall Stephenson changes his mind?
By Ken Doctor
We know that Randall Stephenson says CNN’s not for sale, even though he doesn’t even own it yet. As the news emerged last week that the Department of Justice’s antitrust division has been jawboning with AT&T Inc. on its agreed-to purchase of Time Warner Inc., with CNN an apparent sticking point, the question quickly followed: What would Stephenson, AT&T’s CEO, do?
Would he take the DOJ’s objection to court, or would he agree to divest the sticking parts of the deal, most likely CNN and parent Turner Broadcasting System Inc.?
Stephenson answered the question quickly: To the courts, he said on Thursday, November 9, and that seemed to be the immediate end of the question, though even Stephenson acknowledged would-be offers for the assets already had arrived in his office.
In fact, in this nothing-is-stable media world, all bets need to be off on who might own what come 2020. This is a media industry — TV, film, magazine and newspaper — in the throes of upheaval. Pick your theory of the case about the 2020-2025 reality — the primacy of content, the age of platforms, the need for scale in distribution, the necessity of direct consumer relationships, an age of real convergence — and ambitious strategists could make all kinds of combinations justifiable.
Just days before the news of the Justice Department potentially blocking AT&T, we heard that Walt Disney Co. had been in talks to buy substantial Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. assets. Further, the president’s chosen Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, is busily demolishing most of the rules on limiting the concentration on media ownership, opening the potential of deals we previously thought impossible.
At the moment, an odd economic-high, politically low moment in America, it looks like big prized names in the American media business could be in play. That’s a big story that will play out into 2018, as strategists guess at what the 2020 landscape will look like.
For now, let’s ask the question, though, of CNN. What if AT&T decides that its court battles, while potentially winnable, will just take too long? What if it calculates its deal value is too diminished to bet on the judiciary? What if someone else comes along to make it an offer that makes it easier to bid CNN goodbye?
Stephenson has newly acknowledged that possibility. AT&T, he told CNN last week, would use “another avenue” to “accomplish the same thing,” that is diversifying its huge but maturing business base.
If AT&T did sell, would it have to sell all of Turner Broadcasting, which includes TNT and TBS, in addition to CNN? We’ll leave that question for another time and here focus on CNN.
Founded in 1980 by Ted Turner, its numbers are impressive. It rings in US$1 billion in operating profit and has made substantial progress in its digital transition, now earning about US$350 million in digital revenue a year. (That figure is US$150 million less than The New York Times.) It tops the comScore Inc. charts for total audience. Further, this year, even in — and because of — the fake news hysteria, CNN has distinguished itself as, along with Times and The Washington Post, with its aggressive, sometimes scoopy coverage of national politics.
How much is CNN worth? Over time, analysts have pegged it at US$8 billion to US$10 billion. That means relatively few companies, or individuals, could buy it alone.
Importantly, too, as a cable network, it’s freer of the regulatory reach involved in the selling and buying of broadcast assets. Further, CNN’s long-standing affiliate network provides built-in national/local connections, potentially valuable to some buyers.
Let’s look across the media map of logical and long-shot would-be buyers of CNN. Let’s make a short list of what kinds of combinations, most potential, a few fanciful, may be possible. And let’s remember: Whatever CNN is today could change tomorrow. The words making up its acronym themselves are laughably generic: cable news network. With changed ownership and leadership and changing faces, the CNN we’ve known could rapidly fade into history.
One gating principle: ability to buy. Check. Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith and global head of digital Scott Havens continue to quickly build out the nonterminal business of Bloomberg. Just this week, they announced a new hiring of 50 journalists to create “first 24-hour social news network on Twitter.” Smith now positions his company alongside the embattled platforms: “In this age of the Google/Facebook duopoly, a relentless focus on invention and innovation is the only way to succeed. The fruits of disruption don’t and shouldn’t only belong to the dominant tech platforms.”
One under-reported part of Bloomberg’s growth: global licensing of its content and platform. While that push focuses almost exclusively on business news, a Bloomberg/CNN combo could dominate both general news and business, with even greater distribution and advertising sales power.
Private ownership also would insulate CNN from ever-intensifying winds of political pushback and potential corporate timidity, should an AT&T or others take control. Namesake founder Michael Bloomberg, who made Businessweek “Bloomberg Businessweek,” may like the sound of “Bloomberg CNN.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.
What don’t Sinclair chairman David D. Smith and CEO Christopher Ripley want to buy? While greatly challenged, they’re perilously close to closing on their acquisition of Tribune Media Co. That would give them a reach into 72 per cent of U.S. households, all through local broadcast stations. In total, with the addition of Tribune Media’s 42 stations, Sinclair would own 233 TV stations. That’s a number without precedent in local broadcasting and only possible given the paving of its way by FCC Chairman Pai.
Sinclair already has ramped up its national presence (and nationally mandated, must-carry, fact-challenged editorials) with a new national digital presence — Circa.
In recent months, conjecture has heightened about Sinclair’s wont to compete with Fox News for its audience. One big hurdle: carriage. CNN would solve that problem.
Verizon Communications Inc.
The company finds itself in the same pickle as AT&T. Its businesses are maturing, it needs growth — and it wants to get more digital. CEO Lowell McAdam already has bet on content, first answering Tim Armstrong’s siren call and buying AOL Inc., and then Yahoo Inc.’s core business. A CNN purchase could be transformative. Yet, logically — to the logic, such as it is, of the DOJ’s objection to AT&T-Time Warner — Verizon would find itself similarly disqualified by the feds. Further, Stephenson wouldn’t want to end up making one of his chief competitors potentially stronger.
It’s another AT&T competitor, with ambitions of greater dominance. AT&T would then have similar competitive concerns. Further, Comcast owns NBC, and with it MSNBC. One line of thought: It has what it needs in national and global news gathering and in national distribution. The other: In a world of consolidation, bigger is always better. Why play second fiddle to CNN in total audience and other categories? Why not combine two legacy news operations and build a single digital/TV operation that is truly dominant globally?
We know that Disney actively seeks more film and TV assets — more content for global distribution as it contests Netflix Inc. and the emergent digital-only movie business. Witness its talks with Fox, which some note will be ongoing. Yes, it’s seen a reversal of fortune with cable — ESPN, ancestral cousin of CNN at its founding, is losing its lustre — but it does own ABC News. We could argue that ABC needs scale, or a sale, to survive in digital times.
CBS News serves as another once-great (Big Three!) still finding its way in the new world, though, like ABC and NBC, it can count a large digital audience. “CNN is the perfect complement to CBS News, lots of cost savings,” said one exec quite familiar with both.
It’s all cable, but after the CBS split, Viacom doesn’t have the news genes. “Wrong culture,” one exec summed up.
This huge, private, most media-diversified of companies has made lots of money in cable as well. CNN would be a big stretch, especially for a company known for its fiscal discipline and sober strategies. Yet the company has shown signs of wanting to be more of a player in the unfolding media age, so don’t count it out.
Yes, we know that Rupert Murdoch is, oddly it seems, considering selling some of his prized Fox assets, but never underestimate trader Rupe.
He’s already been accused of whispering in Trump’s ear about the perils of AT&T’s bid. At the same time, it’s been reported that Fox is among the companies that may have newly sniffed around CNN, should it break loose. Yes, the next generation of Murdochs awaits, but consider that Rupert Murdoch may now confront the most wide-open American buying — and merging — opportunity of his lifetime, courtesy of the deregulation he has advocated for decades.
A Fox/CNN merger? Odder than a sale but indeed possible. Think assets and audiences — not the political hoo-hah of the day — and a different possibility emerges.
New York Times Co.:
We know the Sulzbergers, by themselves, couldn’t pull off such a purchase, but consider the potential news powerhouse that would be created.
Trump times have crystallised the news media world, promoting the top brands. At the same time, it is global journalism that offers the most potential return in 2020 to 2030, as Times CEO Mark Thompson said, speaking of “hundreds of millions of college-educated English speakers” recently. While the Times’ “The Daily” news podcast has offered up revelatory success extending the Times beyond text to audio, the video frontier is one it should master. CNN’s a force, but it doesn’t have the stature of the Times. Together, they would have the largest journalistic workforce in the world. Admittedly, this isn’t a new idea — I suggested a partnership five years ago — but it’s one to newly ponder.
Lastly, both news institutions could see themselves strengthened against a new competitor — The Washington Post.
Which, of course, brings us to the billionaire who’s shown what modest investment and confidence can do quickly in propelling an older-school news brand into digital prominence.
“The Post is a vanity buy,” suggested one savvy news executive, when I suggested a Bezos buy. “CNN will need a business case.”
Perhaps, but at the age of 53 and almost US$100 billion in wealth, Bezos may be tempted to do in the digital age what Turner audaciously did 37 years ago. Here, too, we see the potential of a clear number one news giant, just as the Post itself has begun seeing itself as much a global player as a national one. Think of the synergies. As one wag suggested, “He could make ad-free OTT available to Prime members or Kindle hardware owners!”
If an American billionaire can do it, why not a Russian one? The Justice Department has finally acknowledged what RT (Russia TV) has long been, an agent of state propaganda, and forced it to register as a foreign agent. Putin’s now playing the game of the day: false equivalence. He’s talked about demanding the license of U.S. media trying to cover his country. Wouldn’t it be easier just to own a worldwide cable news network?
While there may be some bothersome laws making such an acquisition difficult, perhaps Putin’s friend in the White House could smooth the path.
More plausibly, an exec pointed to other foreign parties: “I wouldn’t rule out Alibaba or Tencent. Either can easily buy it, and even the Justice Department will be very hard-pressed to make a case on the regulatory or the foreign ownership front.”
Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.
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