Discovery Communications Agrees to Buy Scripps Networks -- 5th Update

By Joe Flint and Sarah Rabil Features Dow Jones Newswires

Discovery Communications Inc. has agreed to buy Scripps Networks Interactive Inc. for $11.9 billion, a bet that a bigger footprint in lifestyle programming -- like the kind seen on TLC, HGTV and Food Network -- will help it weather the upheaval in cable television.

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A bigger portfolio of channels that specialize in topics such as home improvement, food, travel and science would give the combined company an edge in talks with advertisers, who covet the female and young viewers gravitating to shows such as "Property Brothers" and "House Hunters" on HGTV and "Shark Week" on Animal Planet.

A critical mass of these types of unscripted shows puts Discovery and Scripps in a position to offer a web-TV bundle directly to consumers, who are "cutting the cord" to cable at a fast pace and turning to "skinny" online bundles from Hulu, Google Inc.'s YouTube, Dish Network Corp.'s Sling TV and other competitors.

It will also give the combined firm more heft with programming distributors that are under pressure to curb monthly cable fees passed through to media companies.

News of the deal overshadowed the companies' quarterly earnings reports, both of which fell short of Wall Street expectations. Discovery shares fell 6.5% to $25.05 in morning trading, while Scripps rose 0.8% to $87.61.

Under the terms of the agreement, announced Monday morning, Scripps shareholders will receive $90 a share, $63 of which will be in cash and $27 a share in Class C Common shares of Discovery stock. The price is a 34% premium to the level where Scripps shares were trading before The Wall Street Journal reported that the companies were in talks.

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Including Scripps's debt, the deal is valued at a total of $14.6 billion.

Discovery owns networks including Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TLC. Scripps operates HGTV, Cooking Channel and Food Network among others.

The two companies account for 13% of overall cable viewership but receive just 7% of the monthly cable fees consumers pay, according to RBC Capital Markets.

The deal will create a must-buy network group for advertisers interested in targeting women and help the network command more premium ad rates. Of the top 20 U.S. cable networks, the merged company will control four of the top five with the highest percentage of female viewers -- TLC, HGTV, Investigation Discovery and Food Network, according to Nielsen data.

Discovery said it would be able to expand Scripps's channels into more overseas markets, which could help generate significant additional revenue. The combined company is also touting its short-form video production, which will help it gain more viewers and ad dollars on social-media platforms.

"We believe that by coming together with Scripps, we will create a stronger, more flexible and more dynamic media company," said David Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery, in announcing the deal.

The deal could put pressure on other media companies that must defend their turf on the cable dial. Industry experts say AMC Networks Inc. could be the next compelling target. It isn't part of a big conglomerate that owns broadcast or sports networks, which cable distributors find most difficult to drop.

Viacom Inc. had also been in talks with Scripps, but Scripps decided to negotiate exclusively with Discovery after reviewing the bids from both companies, according to people familiar with the matter.

The deal will lift the profile of Mr. Zaslav, who had a roughly two-decade career at NBC before joining Discovery in 2007. He has led a transition of Discovery from being primarily known for its serious educational fare to a mix of documentary-style programming and over-the-top reality TV -- shows like "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and "Naked and Afraid." Lately, the pendulum at the company has swung back to content with higher aspirations.

He has launched new channels, including crime-focused Investigation Discovery, which has become a huge hit with female viewers. And he has been as aggressive as any media CEO in international expansion: Operations outside the U.S. accounted for 47% of the company's $6.5 billion in total revenue last year.

The companies announced disappointing earnings simultaneously with the deal news. That prompted Marci Ryvicker, an analyst at Wells Fargo, to put out a note titled: "Well, Good Thing They're Combining Because Q2 Results Were Underwhelming."

Discovery said second-quarter revenue rose 2% to $1.75 billion, shy of analysts' estimates. Scripps lowered its revenue guidance and reported second-quarter U.S. advertising sales growth of 2.2%, which also fell short of expectations.

The deal is expected to close by early 2018, pending approval by shareholders and regulators.

Mr. Zaslav is a close associate of John Malone, the cable mogul who owns a nearly one-third voting stake in Discovery and sits on its board.

Mr. Malone, who has significant interests in companies from Liberty Media Corp. to Charter Communications Inc., has been a driving force in the industry's mergers and acquisitions and has talked up the need for small players in the content world to merge, particularly as cable and broadband providers have gone through their own wave of big deals.

Charter acquired Time Warner Cable in 2016. AT&T Inc. agreed last year to buy Time Warner Inc.

Mr. Zaslav didn't rule out other deals. "We're not out of bullets. We still have room to do some selective purchases," he said.

The sale to Discovery will end more than two decades of family control over the Scripps cable networks. Scripps Networks got its start in 1994, when now-CEO Ken Lowe created HGTV within E.W. Scripps Co., a newspaper company and later local-TV-station owner founded in 1878 by Edward Willis Scripps. Scripps Networks was split off from E.W. Scripps in 2008.

Discovery is securing a purchase of Scripps after more than one failed attempt over the last decade. Three years ago, talks between the two companies broke down, in part because the Scripps family didn't appear ready to sell.

Talks between the two companies heated up again earlier this summer. Discovery had been carrying some Scripps content on one of its Latin American properties and the strong ratings performance persuaded Mr. Zaslav it might be time to take another run at the company, he said.

The family, which collectively controls 91.8% of Scripps voting shares, entered into an agreement to vote in favor of the deal, as did Mr. Malone and the Newhouse family, which is also a major Discovery shareholder.

After closing, Scripps shareholders will own about 20% of Discovery's shares and Discovery investors will own 80%. The acquisition is expected to create about $350 million in cost synergies and add to adjusted earnings in the first year, Discovery said.

Mr. Lowe, who was already planning to step down as CEO in 2019, is expected to join Discovery's board.

Write to Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com and Sarah Rabil at Sarah.Rabil@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 31, 2017 13:29 ET (17:29 GMT)