Comcast drops out of bidding war for Fox, paving way for Disney deal

Comcast is abandoning its contest with the Walt Disney Co. to acquire a collection of Twenty-First Century Fox assets including the Fox movie and TV studios, and stake in streaming service Hulu.

Over the last two months, Comcast has countered Disney in a bidding war for Fox’s assets including its FX and National Geographic channels, 22 regional sports networks, and its 30 percent share of streaming service Hulu and a 39 percent stake in U.K.-based pay-TV and broadband provider Sky.

Both companies consider the assets crucial to a growing battle for entertainment, news and sports content delivered over the internet, as well as traditional pay-TV systems on cable, satellite and fiber. Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch who, along with sons Lachlan and James, control Fox has said the family plans to refocus a smaller Fox on news and sports programming.

Comcast’s exit paves an open path to Disney’s acquisition of the Fox assets. Disney and Fox shareholders are scheduled to vote July 27 on the deal, and Fox’s board has suggested shareholders approve the Disney sale.

More: What could a Comcast-Disney duel for Fox mean for you … and the Marvel Universe?

That recommendation hadn’t slowed the Philadelphia-based Internet and cable heavyweight. Comcast last month trumped Disney’s original $52.4 billion offer for the Fox assets made in December with its own all-cash offer of $65 billion, about a 20 percent premium to Disney’s original bid.

Then Disney on June 20 countered with a $70.4 billion bid of cash and stock. Still, many Wall Street analysts expected Comcast to respond.

But Comcast CEO Brian Roberts decided to withdraw, he said Thursday. “I’d like to congratulate (Disney CEO) Bob Iger and the team at Disney and commend the Murdoch family and Fox for creating such a desirable and respected company,” he said in a statement.

Comcast (CMCSA) shares rose 3.5 percent, Disney (DIS) shares gained 1.1 percent and 20th Century Fox (FOXA) shares lost 1.5 percent. 

Instead, Comcast will focus on acquiring U.K.-based pay-TV and broadband provider Sky, Roberts says. Prior to putting its selected assets up for sale, Fox had been seeking to buy the 61 percent of Sky it does not already own.

But its $15 billion acquisition offer has been stalled by regulatory issues. Among U.K. regulators’ concerns: sexual harassment and and discrimination in the workplace at Fox News. The Murdochs ousted senior executives and top on-air talent at Fox News to send a signal to regulators that it had taken the issue seriously, but approval was far from certain. 

Comcast then moved on Sky. In February, Comcast said it planned to submit a nearly $31 billion bid for the service, with Roberts saying Sky would serve as an international growth platform for the company. When it made the bid official in April, Comcast vowed to “establish an editorial Sky News board with the responsibility to ensure the editorial independence of Sky News for 10 years.”

The company also pledged to maintain, for the next decade, at least the current spending level on Sky News, as well as keep Sky’s U.K. headquarters for five years. Comcast also vowed not to buy any U.K. newspapers for five years.

Comcast made its bid for Disney a day after a federal judge approved AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, as many experts saw that as sign of a lightening in regulatory scrutiny of media company mergers and acquisitions.

Subsequently, the Fox board said a deal with Comcast would carry “higher regulatory risk” than one with Disney. Last week, the Justice Department said it would appeal the AT&T-Time Warner decision.

As for Disney, its deal for the Fox assets is approved in the U.S. by the Justice Department, provided it sells Fox’s 22 regional sports networks.

The new Disney will not only have Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm studios, but also the Fox movie and TV studios with franchises such as The Simpsons, Avatar and Alien.

Additionally, the acquisition of the X-Men, Deadpool and Fantastic Four franchises, all created by Marvel Comics, offers a vast potential for Disney to unleash new Marvel films even more character-stuffed than the recent “Avengers: Infinity War” film.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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