The investment banking world is buzzing that the controversial chief executive of Amazon.com and owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, is sniffing around on a potential purchase of one of AT&T’s most valued assets, the Cable News Network, bankers tell FOX Business.
A person close to Bezos says as of now there is no real interest. “There has been zero talk on this," according to the source.
FOX Business has not been able to confirm whether Bezos has had even informal talks on the deal or whether the speculation is simply a product of investment banker chatter which is often a catalyst for deal making even before talks commence. That holds especially true when deal making speculation swirls about someone of Bezos’s caliber -- the world’s richest man with a net worth of $200 billion per Forbes.
But people who follow AT&T’s 2016 purchase (the deal wasn’t completed until 2018) of TimeWarner — which married a massive content distribution company with premium content — say CNN is clearly an asset that could be shed in the months ahead, and that a deep-pocketed buyer like Bezos, with an in media, could be a suitor.
The $85 billion purchase of TimeWarner, left AT&T with tens of billions of dollars in debt, a desperate array of difficult to digest assets and some weird cultural fits. As a result, AT&T has been forced to reorganize its operations and shed parts of its empire. Its shares have fallen over 31% this year, more than rival Verizon’s 6.5% drop and the S&P 500’s 5% gain.
Rich Greenfield, a partner and media and technology analyst at independent research firm LightShed Partners, has tweeted in the past about the logic of Bezos buying CNN. “It’s not shocking to see this corporation want less exposure to the news (division) but I’m a little surprised CNN would be the only asset to be sold given they have a much stronger digital platform than the rest of Turner’s properties,” Greenfield told FOX Busines.
The veteran analyst also recently tweeted that ViacomCBS and Comcast, the parent of NBCUniversal, could be possible purchasers.
Greenfield added that while there is logic to the sale of CNN (in a recent tweet, he has called it the "only mobile/digital/social success story in legacy media and cost savings could be enormous with another news org") he said it would make more sense as part of a bigger spinoff of all of AT&T’s Turner Broadcasting division, which includes TNT, TBS, truTV, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, in addition to CNN.
Some bankers say untangling CNN from the other media assets will be difficult for AT&T given the various corporate synergies that have been created since the TimeWarner purchase.
Others aren’t so sure. They note AT&T’s more establishment management led by CEO John Stankey and Chairman Randall Stephenson initially considered CNN a key element of the TimeWarner deal to be integrated in AT&T. But both have grown less comfortable with CNN’s hot button, left-leaning political commentary than they are with the more benign programming of Turner Broadcasting.
“No one at AT&T has a problem with Turner Classic movies but they are worried CNN angers so many Republicans in Washington,” says one banker who has heard Bezos is interested in CNN.
Another factor in the banker-chatter of a CNN spinoff: The uncertain future of current CNN President Jeff Zucker. The network's controversial news chief has been the focal point of criticism from President Trump for anti-Republican bias.
(The Trump administration’s Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division challenged AT&T purchase of Time Warner which was ultimately given the green light by a federal judge).
People close to Zucker say there is no final decision on whether he will remain with the network, and any decision could come sometime after next week's presidential election.
A spokesperson for Bezos declined to comment. An AT&T spokeswoman declined to comment but a person with knowledge of the matter says the company hasn’t received an official inquiry about purchasing CNN.
Despite the low odds of any deal in the immediate future, a sale of CNN to Bezos would make sense from both sides, media investment bankers tell FOX Business.
AT&T doesn't break out CNN's earnings in its financial statements, but media analysts say the network is profitable even if it lags behind other cable news channels like Fox News and MSNBC in ratings.
FOX Corporation is the parent company of FOX Business and Fox News.
Meanwhile, AT&T has roughly $30 billion in debt due in 2025. The profits have been also been squeezed by consumers' cord-cutting that has reduced revenues flowing to its wireless and DirecTV distribution units, as well as declines in advertising due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. In order to cut costs, AT&T is also looking at a sale of DirecTV satellite continent distribution business, sources tell FOX Business.
That said, if Bezos were to mount a bid for CNN, he would face significant regulatory scrutiny particularly if President Trump wins re-election, according to people close to the matter. In addition to being a vocal critic of Zucker, Trump has been a vocal critic of Bezos—blaming him for negative coverage coming out of The Washington Post.
Senator Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights retweeted FOX Business‘s initial report on the Bezos-CNN chatter with the comment, “One word to this: No.”
However, in a possible Joe Biden administration, and if Democrats take control of the U.S. Senate, Bezos may have a freer hand to pursue acquisitions like CNN even with growing angst from Democratic progressives over big tech’s dominance of business and culture.
Big tech CEOs will be under the microscope again on Wednesday when Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai will testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Bezos will not be testifying before the committee, which is reviewing Section 230 of the Communications Acts that gives social media companies a safe harbor from liability when comments are posted on their sites.