Disney Closes On 21st Century Fox, And Enters A New Era Of Streaming Competition

Disney closed its $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox on Wednesday, more than a year after it signed a definitive agreement to acquire the entertainment company, which at the time was going to cost $52.4 billion.

Disney’s initial agreement in December 2017 turned out to be less definitive than the term implies. Comcast stepped in with a $65 billion bid just before Fox’s shareholder meeting to approve Disney’s offer, prompting a bidding war that drove the price up to $71 billion.

It wasn’t until July of last year that Comcast bowed out of contention for the TV and movie studio. Comcast ceded 21st Century Fox to Disney, but beat Disney in a simultaneous bidding war for Sky TV, Europe’s largest pay TV provider.

Disney is accustomed to buying entertainment empires, but Comcast is adding content companies in the wake of AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner. All three are fending off competition from tech giants like Amazon, Netflix and Apple.

“The TV and advertising businesses at AT&T and Comcast face a tremendous threat from Silicon Valley digital titans,” Eric Schmitt, Gartner’s research director, said last year. “The Silicon Valley players dream of a future in which they dominate TV, advertising and many, many other aspects of the consumer experience, with AT&T, Comcast and Verizon relegated to ‘dumb pipe’ internet connectivity providers.”

Disney isn’t in the “dump pipes” category like AT&T or Comcast, but it wanted 21st Century Fox for the same reason as those telco players: To own enough content to support a subscription streaming service that could rival the incumbents, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. With 21st Century Fox, Disney also became the controlling shareholder of Hulu, though Comcast owns the outstanding 30%.

Disney+, the long-awaited streaming offer, is slated to launch late this year, powered by Disney media and tech subsidiaries like BAMTech, the streaming video infrastructure provider.

Tensions between Disney and Comcast have dissipated since last summer, when 21st Century Fox and Sky TV were on the auction block. But there may be a lasting schism. Telcos and broadcasters are reconsidering who they think of as friends, enemies or frenemies as internet-age giants like Apple, Amazon, Google and Netflix enter the picture.

For instance, late last year Disney dropped FreeWheel, the Comcast video ad server used by most major broadcast networks for advanced TV buys, and switched its business to Google Ad Manager. It was a huge coup for Google, which wants to add TV-caliber content because there’s heavy demand from programmatic buyers for premium video and smart-TV inventory.

A Disney spokesperson said at the time that the switch to Google was not related to the bitter duels with Comcast earlier in 2018. But the transition still speaks to the new fault lines in media production and distribution.

“We’ve never been satisfied with the status quo, and our vision for this transformative era is our boldest yet,” Disney CEO Bob Iger wrote in a memo to employees after the 21st Century Fox deal closed. “We are rapidly transforming our company to take full advantage of evolving consumer trends and emerging technology in order to thrive in this new and exciting time.”

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