Comcast's Roberts Has Anti-Murdoch Card to Play in Bid for Sky

(Bloomberg) -- As Comcast Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts makes his case to buy the European pay-TV giant Sky Plc, he has a compelling argument: He’s the anti-Rupert Murdoch.

The largest U.S. cable TV company, Comcast has worked to cultivate a nice-guy corporate image, while the reputation of Murdoch and his 21st Century Fox Inc. have been damaged by a British phone-hacking scandal and allegations of sexual harassment in the U.S.

Now, the contrasting images may play a significant role for regulators after Comcast’s surprise 22.1 billion-pound ($31 billion) offer for Sky on Tuesday, topping Fox’s previous bid. Murdoch planned to have Fox buy the 61 percent of Sky it doesn’t already own and sell it, along with the bulk of Fox’s film and TV assets, to Walt Disney Co. His plans are in jeopardy now.

“It’s not so much that Comcast is a paragon of virtue,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC. “It’s simply that they’re not Rupert Murdoch.”

The fight over Sky and its 22.9 million customers is the latest battle between Roberts and Murdoch. In 2003, Murdoch acquired a stake in DirecTV, becoming a competitor to Comcast, and then sold it four years later. Starting in late 2015, Comcast dropped Fox’s Yes Network, which airs New York Yankees games, for more than a year in a contract dispute.

‘Generally Bland’

While Murdoch has a reputation as a swashbuckling dealmaker willing to challenge incumbents, Roberts and his late father, Ralph Roberts, who often wore a bowtie, are “typically courteous, and generally bland and seldom controversial in public,” according to “Comcasted,” a 2005 book about the family by Joseph DiStefano.

Comcast executives have the “keen ability to represent themselves as whatever the customer, regulator, investor or politician who could help them needs to see,” DiStefano wrote. Cultivating a reputation as “gentlemen” has been “one of their most useful assets.”

That ability to make friends could be crucial if Disney and Fox decide not to counter Comcast’s offer for Sky. Then, Roberts will need to win over British regulators and Sky investors. He said Tuesday he respects that the Murdochs may not want to sell their Sky stake to Comcast and will try to win support from independent Sky directors.

His case with regulators will likely be easier to make, analysts say. Fox’s Sky bid has faced extensive probes over concerns that owning Sky News would put too much of Britain’s media into the hands of the billionaire media baron.

‘Clean Buyers’

Fox has also faced a backlash over harassment allegations at Fox News in the U.S., though U.K. regulators have said those claims shouldn’t stop the Sky deal from going ahead.

“Comcast doesn’t have any of the baggage that Rupert Murdoch and 21st Century Fox do,” said Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “They’re very clean buyers from a regulatory perspective, as is Disney.”

Roberts, 58, also has a reputation as a cutthroat competitor who catches rivals off guard, as he did Tuesday with the Sky offer.

In 2004, he launched an unsuccessful takeover bid for Disney. And in 2014 he swooped in with an offer to buy Time Warner Cable, surprising another bidder, Charter Communications. 

A little over a year later, Comcast walked away from that $45.2 billion deal after facing resistance in Washington. Roberts has since tried to improve Comcast’s notorious customer service and bolster its reputation with the company’s 22.4 million subscribers.

Roberts, Forbes magazine once said, is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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