Media mogul Byron Allen, who was among several attempting to purchase ABC and the other linear TV assets from Disney, says Disney’s internal issues were the reasons behind the formal sale process not getting off the ground and not because he lacked access to the necessary capital.
“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 leaked 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” desired by sellers is “certainty of close,” given the current regulatory and industry landscape. “That’s the magic trick.”
Disney CEO Bob Iger not quite ready to sale
Inside Disney, however, there are also complications, Allen said. CEO Bob Iger, despite his public observations last summer 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 helping Iger sort out all options. Linear TV, of course, is not the only challenge in front of the company, which is also navigating Hulu buy-out talks with Comcast and charting 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.” In looking to remove linear networks from the most synergistic media company of modern times, Allen said, is forcing execs to confront the question of “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.”
Assuming a sale process is able to start, Allen vowed, “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 an overall reach to 39% of U.S. households. Nexstar is at that level, as are many other station owners. AMG is not, Allen said.
Private equity or tech suitors, meanwhile, 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,” Allen 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.
Another contrast noted by Boorstin concerned the negative commentary surrounding linear by Disney and Allen’s insistence that linear TV is “a great business.” That same contrast existed in 2018, when Allen paid $300 million for The Weather Channel, which had been owned by a series of private companies, which grew disenchanted with it. “They were saying, ‘Take it, take it.’ Gave us a great price because they were constantly talking about the decline and the demise of linear television. I said, ‘No, I think you’re reading it wrong.”
Since the acquisition, Allen said top-line revenue and EBITDA have both increased for the network. Because AMG is a private company, it is not required to publicly disclose financial information.
Allen said he had been “stalking” Disney for the local stations since at least 2014. That year, WJLA in Washington, D.C. was sold after 40 years of ownership. After Allen said Disney did not look at making an offer, Sinclair stepped in and took over the station. That passivity and the fact the company’s stations have long had reach to just 22% of U.S. households, well below the 39% cap, “told me that they’re not in love with this space.”