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Why Comcast wants to take Sky News away from Rupert Murdoch

Sky would give the Philadelphia-based cable firm access to tens of millions of homes in the U.K., Germany, Italy and Austria, and it would ease the pressure Comcast is feeling from entertainment streaming services.

Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts is making a hostile bid for European TV distributor in Europe.
Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts is making a hostile bid for European TV distributor in Europe.Read moreJeff Chiu

Comcast Corp. wants to go European and it won't let media baron Rupert Murdoch stand in its way.

On Tuesday, Comcast told U.K. regulators that it planned to make a $31 billion offer for the London-based entertainment and news distributor Sky that would give the Philadelphia cable firm access to 23 million subscribers in the U.K., Germany and Italy. It needs the approval of regulators in London.

The deal is about the size of Comcast's transaction for NBCUniversal in 2011 and would rip Sky out of the hands of Murdoch, whose 21st Century Fox has made a competing bid to purchase the share of Sky that he doesn't already own. Comcast calls its offer, which is 16 percent higher than Fox's, "superior."

Murdoch has sought full control of satellite-TV distributor Sky for many years. But U.K. regulator have feared what he would do with that media concentration, especially because his media companies and newspapers have been plagued by scandals. This has given Comcast an opening.

The Comcast offer also could force Murdoch to renegotiate a deal in which he plans to sell to the Walt Disney Co. about $52.4 billion in assets, including his current Sky ownership stake, the Fox movie studio and cable channels,  analysts said.

"We have admired Sky for a long time," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a Tuesday morning conference call with European stock analysts. He pitched the Sky deal the way the company pitched its mega-acquisitions for NBCUniversal and Time Warner Cable, stressing the public benefits. Roberts also  promised to keep Sky's headquarters in Osterley, which should neutalize Sky employee grousing.

Roberts said he and other Comcast executives had visited Sky stores and operations in London. But it had not approached the Sky board with a deal before Tuesday. Comcast recently hired a London-based executive with Virgin Media, Dana Strong, as president of consumer services, reporting to Comcast Cable division head Dave Watson.

News of the Comcast proposal on Tuesday rattled the stocks of Comcast, 21st Century Fox, and the Walt Disney Co. as investors now expect a bidding war to break out for Sky. Comcast shares fell 7.4 percent;  Fox and Disney shed 3.3 and 4.5 percent, respectively.

Some analysts see such moves as a hedge for U.S.-based TV distributors such as Comcast against popular online streamers that are draining eyeballs from traditional television. As these streamers grow their subscriber base and add original content such as Narcos or The Handmaid's Tale, Comcast and Disney are looking to expand into overseas markets.

"Sky is going to sky," said Eric Schiffer, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles private equity firm Patriarch Organization. "You will see a bidding war. These large companies have to do more with distribution with their battle with streamers. And there are not many things you can buy today to give you that ability."

Comcast has been casting about for such a deal. Its last major one, for Time Warner Cable, was rejected in 2015 by federal regulators over its concentration of high-speed internet subscribers, bad customer service,  and its basic size.

Since then, AT&T has acquired satellite-TV operator DirecTV and is seeking federal approvals to buy Time Warner Inc., the entertainment conglomerate that owns premium cable channel HBO and CNN. The Justice Department's Antitrust Division has sued to block the AT&T/Time Warner deal as dangerous to consumers. The trial is scheduled for mid-March.

Charter Communications acquired Time Warner Cable in 2016, closing its size gap considerably with Comcast.

Comcast has had to satisfy its acquisitive hunger with smaller content deals for the Dreamworks animation studio along with theme park investments in Japan and China. In late 2017, Murdoch reportedly rejected Comcast's higher bid for the Fox assets  when he agreed to sell them to Disney.

"Sky has been a consistent innovator in its use of technology to deliver a fantastic viewing experience and has a proud record of investment in news and programming," Roberts said in a statement.

Roberts added that the "U.K. is and will remain a great place to do business. We already have a strong presence in London [through NBCUniversal] and Comcast intends to use Sky as a platform for growth in Europe."

If Comcast closes on the deal, interational revenues will rise to 25 percent of the total from 9 percent. Its "total customer relationships" in TV, internt or phone services will soar to 52 million from 29 million, the company said.

Laith Khalaf, senior analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, told the Associated Press that Sky's value increased after it secured English Premier League soccer rights in Europe at a competitive price at an auction two weeks ago. "This isn't a done deal yet," he told the AP. "The market clearly smells the scent of some more action before this saga draws to a close."