See You in Sun Valley. Bring Your M&A Banker.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Media moguls may feel as though they're already white-water rafting through the figurative rapids of the streaming-TV industry and global pandemic. But what happens when figures such as Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Discovery Inc.’s David Zaslav get put in an actual raft together? We may soon find out.
Some of the wealthiest and most powerful dealmakers and chief executives in technology and media are gathering this week for the return of the annual Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, an event known as "summer camp for billionaires." It’s always a closely guarded affair but this year’s planning has been in extra-stealth mode, perhaps in part because of Covid-19 concerns, which canceled last year’s outing. The agenda of outdoorsy bonding activities is known for sparking merger-and-acquisition discussions among the wide range of guests, which also includes Hollywood personalities, video-game executives, sports league bosses — and even Warren Buffett.
Over the years, Comcast Corp.’s deal for NBCUniversal, Verizon Communications Inc.’s takeover of AOL and Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post were all said to have been facilitated by meetings in the scenic Sun Valley. (An episode of HBO’s popular series “Succession” even took place at a fictionalized version of the event.) With industry M&A already quite active this year, it's almost assured that sticking these leaders together in a room — or on a canoe or hike — will bring about more alliances and big-ticket deals. The best the rest of us can do is watch for headlines and photos of which vest-sporting CEOs were curiously in deep discussion for hints at the next possible permutations.
For those keeping tally, Zaslav struck a deal in May to combine Discovery with WarnerMedia, a division being spun off from AT&T Inc. The deal will put the Discovery+ and HBO Max streaming services under one roof — and maybe even one subscription someday. Also in May, Amazon.com Inc. agreed to buy MGM Studios to enhance its Prime Video offering. That puts the spotlight on Discovery peer ViacomCBS Inc., AT&T competitor Comcast or Amazon rival Apple as the potential next M&A mover.
Shari Redstone, the ViacomCBS chair and heiress, is expected to be in attendance this year. With ViacomCBS’s Paramount+ app stuck in the shadow of Netflix Inc., Disney+ and HBO Max, there’s speculation that she could look to line up a sale of her newly merged company to an even larger one. Comcast’s Brian Roberts is reportedly studying deals for ViacomCBS or Roku Inc. to up its streaming game (the cable giant owns Peacock). Apple’s Cook, who like Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg has become a conference regular, hasn’t made any large acquisitions of his own to support Apple TV+ and it’s not clear he wants to. While the app also remains a bit of an afterthought among streaming choices, it’s had a string of successful series helping to change that: “The Morning Show,” “Ted Lasso” and “Mythic Quest.”
Recent turnover at the top of some of these companies may also bring a different feel and new faces to this year’s outing. Andy Jassy, who was running Amazon’s cloud-services business, replaced Jeff Bezos as CEO on July 5 and is reportedly on the guest list. Likewise, Bob Chapek, who succeeded Bob Iger as Walt Disney Co. CEO in 2020 and came up through the theme-parks division, is said to be in attendance, as well as Jeff Shell, the relatively new CEO of Comcast’s NBCUniversal.
Another notable guest on the list is Jason Kilar, who as head of AT&T’s WarnerMedia seemed to have the rug pulled out from under him when the sale to Discovery was announced. It will be interesting to see who he chums up to (Netflix’s Reed Hastings recently had to clarify a tweet that mistakenly suggested he was calling for Kilar to join its board, whoops!). No one may have more fun this week than Hastings and his co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who get to just sit back and watch the M&A marathon they set in motion.
In the backdrop there’s heightened U.S. scrutiny of the dominant tech companies and perhaps — under an administration that’s brought a focus back to antitrust enforcement — a watchful regulatory eye on the streaming-TV landscape. But this week, at least, the streaming wars get to have more of a Camp Anawanna feel to them.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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