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What John Malone wants to own outside the US

Liberty Media Chairman John Malone arrives for a morning session during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Liberty Media Chairman John Malone arrives for a morning session during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.

With Time Warner Cable set to land in the hands of Comcast, John Malone's dealmaking could be on hold in the U.S. for now. But there may be more in his sights in Europe.

Liberty Global, the Malone-controlled media investment company focused overseas, has in the last couple of years gobbled up cable companies, including the U.K.'s Virgin Media for $16 billion along with Dutch operator Ziggo for $9.4 billion.

What's next? Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries told CNBC the target has shifted to companies that own or produce content rather than distribute it.

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Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries
Bloomberg/Contributor | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries

"There's not a lot of cable stuff left," he said in the lobby of the Sun Valley Lodge, where Allen & Co. was hosting an event for its annual conference for tech and media moguls in Sun Valley, Idaho. Malone, who is chairman of Liberty Global, is a regular attendee but had to miss this year for his granddaughter's graduation.

Fries said Liberty is interested in sports, broadcast networks, production companies, and so-called over-the-top operators like Netflix that offer programing without a pay-TV package.

"Sports makes economic sense because everyone needs it," he said, adding that broadcast offers "scale and reach" within a particular market. European over-the-top services, meanwhile, generally haven't gone as far as Netflix in the U.S. but could over time.

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Fries also said Liberty Global will probably not be interested in owning cable channels unless they are very strong networks that cable and satellite companies will want to carry.

"If they're marquee channels they work great. If they're small niche channels, they don't," he said. "It's just not in the long run where we think the value will be."

He also stressed an important distinction between cable consolidation in the U.S. versus Europe. While big cable mergers in the U.S. can theoretically give companies more leverage over companies that own content, European markets tend to watch different programming in different languages. That makes it difficult to build a pan-European cable system with extra clout.

According to Fries, content owners in Europe have "mastered the ability" to fragment the content across different markets, which makes it hard to gain leverage over them. Even football leagues, which have appeal across countries, have managed to sell content market-by-market.

Even so, there is plenty of cost-saving opportunity when combining cable assets within markets, he said.

Asked about a potential consolidation of British Sky Broadcasting, with the Sky companies in Italy and Germany, Fries said the deal made a lot of sense for BSkyB but wouldn't threaten his business significantly. Liberty Global isn't in Italy and it carries Sky networks in the U.K. and Germany.

Twenty-First Century Fox has confirmed its interest in selling its stakes in the Italian and German companies to BSKyB, in which it also holds a minority stake.

Even without any deal, Fries said the regulatory environment in Europe was becoming more favorable for cable operators, which should help them increase revenue. As he pointed out, the typical monthly revenue per user in a given European market may be $50 per month and growing. That compares with the U.S., where "you're at $100 per month and trying to hold onto it."

Disclaimer: Comcast owns CNBC parent NBCUniversal.

—By CNBC's John Jannarone

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