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The trans-continental bidding war between Comcast and Disney had become one of the most intriguing media battles for decades, given the sheer scale of money on the table and the two CEOs’ well-known contempt for one another.
Comcast announced Thursday that it would drop out of the race to acquire Fox’s assets, paving the way for Disney to complete its takeover. However, it does not necessarily signal the end of the battle.
Ian Whittaker, media equity researcher at Liberum, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Friday that Comcast’s decision to scrap its pursuit of Fox could be interpreted as a “warning shot” to Disney — as well as an admission of the U.S. cable giant’s willingness to accept a “division of the spoils.”
“The first thing is actually to suggest to Disney a division of the spoils. So essentially, to say you as Disney, you take Fox’s U.S. assets… we as Comcast actually take Sky, including the 39 percent stake that Fox currently owns,” Whittaker said.
“The second thing is… It essentially sends a warning shot to Disney over Sky. It essentially says, ‘We pulled out of the bid for the assets of the U.S., we therefore have more firepower available. If you come back with a revised bid, we can actually go higher as well,’” he added.
Comcast had bid $65 billion for some of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, while Disney’s most recent bid came in at $71 billion.
The offers come amid rapid changes to the media landscape, with legacy entertainment giants being forced to consider spending tens of billions of dollars in order to keep pace with upstarts like Netflix and Amazon.
Fox owns a 39 percent stake in British broadcaster Sky. And the European pay-television group boasts a market-leading platform that is thought to have approximately 23 million customers across the continent.
The appeal of Sky to the likes of Comcast or Disney is such that owning the firm would give them both a rare opportunity to diversify out of the U.S. and reach consumers overseas more directly.
Comcast’s Brian Roberts has previously said the appeal of Sky left him feeling “terribly impressed,” while Disney’s Bob Iger called the British broadcaster the “crown jewel” of Fox’s television and movie assets.
By winning the race to acquire Fox, Disney could soon assume pole position in terms of having the most formidable content platform in all of Hollywood, adding to a lucrative stable that already includes Marvel, Pixar and LucasFilm.
Still, Sky remains the unresolved and final piece of the puzzle.
“This is one day going to make a fantastic scripted drama in and of itself… It has all the ideas: fear, greed (and) some empires flailing as they look to a new world,” Zach Fuller, media analyst at MIDiA Research, told CNBC on Friday.
Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.