Discovery shareholder John Malone says 'there's no question' Comcast CEO Brian Roberts wanted to acquire WarnerMedia

Key Points
  • John Malone, Discovery's controlling shareholder, said AT&T agreed to merge its content unit WarnerMedia with Discovery after deciding the regulatory environment and ownership challenges made a deal with NBCUniversal more difficult.
  • Malone said "there's no question" Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, NBCUniversal's parent company, wanted to acquire WarnerMedia.
  • Malone left the door open for future business partnerships or a future merger between the newly combined WarnerMedia-Discovery and NBCUniversal.

In this article

Environment was too competitive for AT&T, says Liberty Media's Malone
Environment was too competitive for AT&T, says Liberty Media's Malone

Count John Malone among those anticipating a potential future tie-up between a combined WarnerMedia-Discovery and Comcast's NBCUniversal.

The billionaire media mogul and controlling Discovery shareholder told CNBC on Monday he's already held discussions with Comcast Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts about different combinations of corporate relationships regarding NBCUniversal. (Comcast-owned NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.)

"My comment to Brian was that this is the pickle out of the jar," Malone said in an interview with CNBC's David Faber. "If the regulatory environment permitted, down the road, all kinds of relationships could be contemplated between this enterprise that we're creating and Brian's enterprise. I think there are many opportunities for this Discovery-[WarnerMedia] enterprise to work with NBCUniversal to develop successful businesses."

Telecom giant AT&T announced May 17 a deal to combine its content unit WarnerMedia with Discovery. Under the agreement, AT&T will unwind its $85 billion acquisition of the then-named Time Warner, which closed just under three years ago, and form a new media company with Discovery. The deal will create a new business, separate from AT&T.

Malone said "there's no question" Roberts wanted to acquire WarnerMedia, but AT&T felt a transaction with Comcast would have been problematic from a regulatory perspective and complicated with regard to ownership structure. It's unclear if Roberts would have been willing to give up control of NBCUniversal in a deal — a move Malone made with Discovery.

"At this point in time, assessing the regulatory environment, the competitive environment and people's requirements for control, I believe AT&T made the judgment they were better off at this point in history working with Discovery than other potential spinoff partners," Malone said. "I'm sure NBCU was very much in their minds as an alternative."

Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who is expected to take over as the combined company's CEO, told CNBC last week he believes Warner-Discovery can one day reach 400 million global streaming subscribers. But it's also possible the company will still struggle to compete against Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney for eyeballs. That could lead to another transaction — potentially with NBCUniversal — to combine content and gain international scale.

Roberts and former NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke held preliminary conversations more than three years ago on a joint streaming service that would have combined WarnerMedia's content with NBCUniversal's, according to people familiar with the matter. AT&T nixed that idea at the time, the people said. Since then, WarnerMedia has launched HBO Max, and Comcast has debuted Peacock.

A Comcast spokesperson declined to comment on Malone's remarks.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.