Shari Redstone is hitting pause on any potential partnership talks between her media company ViacomCBS and NBC owner Comcast in hopes of lining up more suitors, The Post has learned.
The billionaire heiress, who serves as chairman of ViacomCBS, has decided to hold off until next year before re-engaging in talks with Comcast’s Brian Roberts, according to two sources close to the situation.
This includes any talks of a merger or a joint domestic venture where Comcast and ViacomCBS could combine their respective streaming services, Peacock and Paramount Plus, according to a source.
Reps for ViacomCBS, Redstone and Comcast declined to comment.
ViacomCBS’s directors had suggested to controlling shareholder Redstone that her business will likely attract multiple suitors if she waits to shop around, sources said. Redstone agreed with the board and the company is focusing on building out its business for the time being, these sources added.
“Board members are speaking to Shari and saying don’t panic,” a source said referring Hollywood’s consolidation frenzy.
It’s been widely reported that Comcast has been eyeing buying Viacom/CBS assets, which includes Nickelodeon and the Paramount Pictures movie studio, as industry consolidation heats up in an effort to compete for streaming subscribers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts met with Redstone and ViacomCBS CEO and president Bob Bakish in late June in New York to discuss a potential streaming pact for international markets. Last week, ViacomCBS announced a distribution partnership in Europe between Paramount+ and Comcast’s Sky.
A June report from The Journal also that said Roberts was mulling a potential tie-up between his company and ViacomCBS. And in July, Roberts and Redstone were spotted at the Allen & Co. annual media conference, sparking further speculation about a deal.
Comcast’s Roberts has downplayed the idea of a merger, both publicly and behind the scenes. Speaking on CNBC after Comcast’s earnings report in late July he said: “We don’t feel we need to do M&A.”
But sources say that this may be because Roberts knows that a deal between Comcast and ViacomCBS might be easier to get past regulators if Redstone’s media company could first sell CBS.
Federal Communications Commission rules prohibit broadcasters from owning two of the major four networks, in this case NBC and CBS.
One potential buyer of CBS is the media entity that will emerge next year from AT&T’s planned sale of its WarnerMedia unit, behind HBO, Warner Bros. and CNN, and Discovery, which operates TLC, HGTV and Animal Planet.
But that new entity, to be run by Discovery CEO David Zaslav, cannot even think about any new deals until its own $43 billion merger is completed.
“Shari is hearing a lot of people could be interested in combining with ViacomCBS but not now,” a source said. That includes Zaslav, according to a person familiar with the media boss’s thinking.
Other people close to Redstone, however, insist that she’s not interested in selling CBS to anyone and that the most logical suitors at the moment are private equity firms.
Another source suggested that Redstone could also find a suitor in the tech world where companies like Amazon and Apple are scrapping for TV shows and movies to fill their streaming services.
“I think the hope is big tech comes in the picture,” the source said. “She can benefit from waiting.”
Amazon, which recently agreed to buy MGM, the movie studio behind the James Bond franchise, for $8.45 billion, may also be on the hunt for more film and TV shows once it closes that deal.
Sources close to Redstone also note another factor that may be drawing the media mogul to the sidelines— Bob Bakish, who she tapped to run ViacomCBS when the two formerly separate entities merged in 2019.
Bakish has only been running the business since December 2019 and is not interested in being replaced so soon, sources said.
“I don’t think Shari is ready to force Bob into doing a deal,” the source said.
Although he is close to Redstone, Backish was not at the Allen & Co. conference participating in the talks with Roberts, sources said.
On a ViacomCBS earnings call last week, in which he unveiled a massive $900 million deal for new episodes of “South Park,” Bakish said he will always evaluate every merger opportunity declining to elaborate further.
“We believe organic execution continues to be the right path,” he said, adding: “Of course, we will always evaluate any opportunities through a shareholder value creation lens.”
However, for the time being, the reality is ViacomCBS is simply not in play, sources close to the situation said.
–Additional reporting by Lydia Moynihan