Still, Mr. Malone, a former engineer who built TCI into a giant over decades, is one of the oldest hands at wheeling and dealing. People close to him say that he is interested in fostering more cooperation in the cable industry, and in the past he has criticized Comcast, the biggest provider, for what he sees as a lack of initiative.
"He wants to assert some leadership," one of these people said.
At the moment, one way of gaining a bigger podium for his views appears to be in helping Charter pursue a potential deal for Time Warner Cable.
Liberty's chief executive, Gregory Maffei, met with his counterpart at Time Warner Cable, Glenn A. Britt, in late May to sell the benefits of a merger, the people briefed on the matter said. They declined to be named because the talks were private. The meeting didn't conclude with a specific offer, though Mr. Britt was largely unmoved by the approach, which envisioned no takeover premium for his company.
Since then, Liberty and Charter executives have strongly hinted to investors that they remain interested in a deal, done only on a friendly basis, in what observers say appears to be a quiet effort to move Time Warner Cable shareholders into the deal camp.
One person close to Mr. Malone cautioned that Liberty and Charter had not made a firm decision on which companies to pursue yet.
Time Warner Cable's management is skeptical and uninterested, though it would be compelled to consider any offer that delivers a significant takeover premium for shareholders, one of the people briefed on the matter said.
A combination of Charter and Time Warner Cable, which both have nationwide coverage, would have about 15 million television subscribers. That would make it the third-biggest such service in the United States, behind only Comcast and DirecTV. The combined company would be the second-biggest broadband provider, behind Comcast.
A merger would give Charter more regional scale and clout with content providers. Merging with Time Warner Cable could allow Charter to cut programming costs by close to $400 million, according to several analysts.
It would also give the company more money to chase other deals.
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Liberty has also implied that a deal would provide Time Warner Cable with a replacement for Mr. Britt, who is expected to retire this year, in the form of Thomas M. Rutledge, Charter's chief executive and a longtime cable industry executive.
But any deal could be complex. Time Warner Cable's market value is $32.7 billion, nearly three times Charter's $12.5 billion. And Time Warner Cable executives are uncomfortable with many aspects of a potential merger. They are pressing ahead with their own strategic plans; they think Charter's market reach does not necessarily mesh with their own company's; and they may be wary of the amount of debt that a transaction would involve.
Not everyone believes that big-ticket mergers are in the industry's future. Mr. Moffett said he expected more action at the lower end of the marketplace, among the obscure cable companies that would be better off merging. It is there that Mr. Malone may find the most targets.
"The small operators simply can't stand toe-to-toe with the big guys," Mr. Moffett said. Mr. Malone, he added, probably thinks that "Charter is my ticket for the fire sale."
—By Michael J. De La Merced and Brian Stelter of the New York Times
(Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.)