Reports have emerged that 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) is in talks with private equity firm Blackstone to launch a joint bid for Tribune Media (NYSE:TRCO). The companies plan to form a joint venture for the deal, having Blackstone provide funding and Fox adding some TV stations from its portfolio.
Fox and Blackstone hope to outbid rival Sinclair Broadcasting. Reports of a potential bid from Sinclair emerged a month after proposals were floated by the new Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai to dial back regulations that would have hampered such deals. A combined Sinclair-Tribune would mean more leverage in future carriage negotiations with Fox. Sinclair is currently the largest owner of US television stations.
Purchasing Tribune would give Fox control over more local TV stations, most of them in major cities. Tribune owns or operates 42 stations nationwide, including KTLA in Los Angeles, WPIX in New York and WGN in Chicago. Fox currently has 28 owned and operated stations in the US, including the Fox network and the FX cable channel. The Fox broadcast network is also carried by dozens of other stations.
Tribune announced more than a year ago that it would explore strategic options for the business. After the reports emerged of interest from Fox and Sinclair, shares of Tribune Media rose 5.5 percent, trading above $40 a share at times in early trading on Monday. Tribune’s stock price hasn’t traded above $45 since the summer of 2015. The company currently has a market capitalization of $3.2 billion.
Interest in television stations has increased since the FCC recently reinstated a rule that allows station owners to exclude channels broadcast over UHF waves in calculating how many markets they reach. Reinstating the rule effectively lifts a significant barrier to owning more stations and made the consolidation of station owners much more likely. David Smith, the chairman and largest shareholder in Sinclair, supported the reinstatement of the UHF discount.
The FCC has been seen as broadly more supportive of deals since Pai was elevated to agency chair by President Donald Trump. The new FCC is expected to make many moves over the next few years to relax controls over media ownership.