Media entrepreneur Byron Allen, one of many parties interested in acquiring ABC and other linear TV assets from Disney, said he has “access to plenty of capital,” and Disney’s internal deliberations are the next hurdle to be cleared.
“Capital’s not an issue,” he said of securing financial backing for his $10 billion bid. “I have access to plenty of capital. … There’s trillions of dollars out there looking for a safe place to invest and get it back with a return.”
Allen provided the update during a sit-down at the Code Conference with CNBC correspondent Julia Boorstin. When she asked Allen if he had a specific plan for how the bid would be financed, he replied, “Oh, absolutely,” without going into any details.
Earlier this month, word emerged that local TV giant Nexstar Media Group had held talks with Disney about ABC and the company’s eight owned local stations. Allen Media Group, whose holdings include The Weather Channel, local stations and a film and TV production operation is also interested in buying FX and National Geographic Channel.
Rather than financing, Allen maintained that the “real commodity is certainty of close,” given the current regulatory and industry landscape. “That’s the magic trick.”
Inside Disney, however, there are additional wrinkles, Allen noted. CEO Bob Iger, despite his public observations that linear TV “may not be core” to the company “is not ready” yet to enter a formal process, according to Allen. Former Disney vets Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, who now run Candle Media, were also name-checked by Allen as the key advisors who are helping Iger sort out all options, while also navigating the Hulu buy-out with Comcast and the streaming future of ESPN.
“These legacy companies are trying to reinvent themselves,” Allen said. “It’s like they’re trying to build a new airplane mid-air while they’re flying their old airplane, in a publicly traded entity. This is a very challenging thing to accomplish. Bob is excellent at what he does, he’s phenomenal, he’s the best person to do it, but whoa, they’re asking him to do something that has not occurred in the last 100 years.” The main strategic challenge of jettisoning longtime linear networks, Allen said, is “how do you de-couple it? How do you pull it out of their ecosystem? Because it’s really integrated into everything Disney. That’s the hard part. … If they do get to the point where they’re willing to do it, I’m going to chase it down like a lion chasing a gazelle.”
Competitively, Allen argued, he enjoys some clear advantages. Anyone looking to take on the ABC stations, he noted, would have to be sure not to exceed federal limits on station ownership, which cap it at 39%. Nexstar is at that level, as are many other station owners. AMG is not.
Private equity or tech buyers of the networks, he said, could run afoul of regulators in other respects.
“Washington, DC has made it very clear they’re not interested in private equity and hedge funds buying this type of asset, a national news service, and operating it,” he said. Last May, private equity firm Standard General abandoned its $8.6 billion bid for major station group Tegna after regulators applied scrutiny to its post-merger plans for the company. Although P.E. firms will likely continue to have a role in local media as minority investors, Allen said, “DC is not impressed with the way private equity and hedge funds handled newspapers and accelerated their demise. So, good luck going in there and buying platforms that deliver 80% of the news to America.”
Allen said his interest in ABC and the owned stations dates back nearly a decade. “I’d been stalking Disney for a while,” he said, noting that the company’s dimming enthusiasm for local TV “hit my radar” in 2014 when the company declined to make an offer for WJLA-TV in Washington, DC. (Sinclair bought it instead as part of a $985M transaction). Citing a relationship with Iger dating back to his early days as a stand-up comedian when Iger was still a rising junior exec at ABC, he affirmed that his offer would be given full consideration. “They know I’m real,” he said. “They know it’s sincere.”
Boorstin noted that Allen had made multi-billion-dollar offers for Tegna as well as for a stake in BET and related assets owned by Paramount Global. The first bid did not bear fruit and the second failed to advance because Paramount reversed course and decided to retain full control.