Are two cable moguls about to square off again?
The emergence of Comcast Corp. as a potential suitor for Time Warner Cable is the latest twist in the at-times tense relationship between Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and John Malone, whose Liberty Media has a 27% stake in Charter Communications, which is also pursuing Time Warner Cable.
Roberts is now what Malone was for many years, head of the biggest cable company in the country. Comcast has over 21 million subscribers and also owns NBCUniversal, parent of NBC and several powerful cable channels including USA, Bravo, CNBC and MSNBC. In his heyday, Malone controlled Tele-Communications Inc., which was the biggest operator in the United States for many years until he sold his systems.
Now Malone is looking to make a comeback in cable and has made no secret of his desire to have Charter lead a new round of consolidation in the industry. Charter currently has 4.2-million subscribers, and adding Time Warner Cable's more than 11 million subscribers would make it the third-largest pay-TV distributor in the country behind Comcast and satellite broadcaster DirecTV.
Time Warner Cable has been resistant to overtures from Charter and in recent months reached out to Comcast about a possible deal, people familiar with the matter said.
Whether Comcast has any real interest in Time Warner Cable isn't clear. Such a deal would get lots of scrutiny from regulators, especially as it comes so soon after Comcast swallowed NBCUniversal. But Time Warner Cable does have prime real estate in New York City and Los Angeles that may be very appealing to Comcast.
Another scenario has Comcast and Charter working together to divide up Time Warner Cable, but that would seem to go against Malone's desire to make Charter a bigger force. While one could argue half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, the relationship between Malone and Roberts has a lot of baggage. If Comcast does have an interest in Time Warner Cable, it may be just a desire to keep it out of Malone's hands. Already news of Comcast's potential interest has helped drive up the price of Time Warner Cable stock, making a deal by Charter more challenging.
Malone and Roberts first brushed up against each other more than two decades ago. At that time, both Liberty and Comcast were shareholders in Turner Broadcasting, the parent of CNN, TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network. When Time Warner, which was also a shareholder, made a move to buy the entire company, there was tension because Comcast felt Liberty got a better deal to sell its stake. Roberts grumbled at the time that Liberty was getting "preferential treatment."
A few years later, it was Malone's turn to be mad at Roberts. When TCI founder Bob Magness died in 1996, Roberts made a covert attempt to buy his shares, which would have given him control of the company. Malone beat back the effort, but it left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Malone was livid," wrote Mark Robichaux in his book, "Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business."
Perhaps these old spats are water under the bridge. Or maybe the Time Warner Cable situation is just the latest chapter in the John Malone — Brian Roberts saga.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.
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