Wall Street expects two-year pause in big media and telecom M&A

Sure, we may see CBS and Viacom merge next year. But there aren’t many obvious deals left.

There are two major ways the media and telecommunications world could shift in the coming years. First, a huge technology company could buy a large media company. But again, that’s unlikely to happen before 2020.

The second possible shift is the convergence of wireless and cable, such as Verizon or T-Mobile (whether or not it’s combined with Sprint) merging with a large cable company, like Charter or Comcast, which owns CNBC parent NBCUniversal.

This type of deal may be tied to how 5G manifests itself in the next few years. While some believe 5G will give wireless companies a fighting chance to compete with broadband cable companies in the huge internet-to-the-home market, others are more skeptical that the technology and speed of rollout will amount to much in the next few years.

The questions around 5G could push a wireless-cable merger off for years, if it happens at all, said Moffett. That may take Verizon out of the running as a buyer (Meanwhile, AT&T will be tied up digesting Time Warner, and Sprint and T-Mobile will have to integrate, assuming deal approval.)

Smaller media companies, such as Lionsgate, MGM and iHeartRadio, could be acquired before 2021, but none of those companies is large enough to move the needle like the deals we’ve seen in 2018. Among companies larger than $10 billion, Spanish-language media company Univision and Discovery are possible targets. Univision actually rejected a $13 billion offer from Discovery last year, Bloomberg reported in March.

But even these companies may want to wait until there are more potential buyers at the table, knowing that AT&T, Comcast and Disney will all have to integrate their big deals, said Harrison. Moreover, the big media companies are changing their business plans in real time, moving from a maturing and dying licensing content structure (traditional pay-TV bundles) to direct-to-consumer models. This evolution “will change the economics of the industry” and the results will have to play out before big media companies make their next big moves, Harrison said.

One possible path to more activity before 2021 is if regulators reject the T-Mobile-Sprint deal. That could put both companies back on the block, which could lead to a tie-up with another company, such as Dish Network, which tried to buy Sprint in 2013 and has held on-and-off talks with T-Mobile for years.

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