For the last four years, What’s Brian Roberts going to buy has been a perennial parlor game question among the Sun Valley set. It all started in 2018, when the Comcast-NBCUniversal chief tried and failed to intercept Bob Iger‘s takeover of the Fox entertainment assets and settled for Sky, instead. The question came up again last year, when David Zaslav masterfully executed his stealth merger with WarnerMedia. The former Time Warner media assets, after all, would have been a boon to NBCUniversal, helping them compete more aggressively with Netflix, Disney, et al. And the question came up again this year after Microsoft C.E.O. Satya Nadella agreed to pay $69 billion for Activision Blizzard, an asset that would have provided NBCU with a massive infusion of new I.P. and immediate entry into the highly lucrative gaming space.
Whether Roberts was too cautious, too late, too difficult, or too smart to land any of these is a matter of debate. He tried hard for Fox and is said to have wanted WarnerMedia. Whether or not he wanted to pursue Activision, he certainly never got around to having serious conversations about it. Whatever the case, the question stands, and remains as pressing as ever—especially as Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming play, languishes behind its competitors. Though Roberts has said that NBCUniversal doesn’t need mergers and acquisitions to achieve scale, the conventional wisdom among many of his peers and competitors, as well as among a considerable set of investors and analysts, is that, as a matter of fact, everyone does. Moreover, the Roberts family has traditionally been among the most acquisitive in the business.
Back in January, after news of the Microsoft-Activision deal broke, I noted that Roberts had few good options left: ViacomCBS, with a market cap of $21 billion, was too small to deliver meaningful scale to NBCUniversal; and, regardless, any potential acquisition would have required a divestiture of overlapping assets like the CBS broadcast station. The other option, I wrote, was Electronic Arts, the formidable gaming company, which had a $40 billion market cap at the time that has since fallen to $36 billion. While not as big as Activision, the Redwood City-based company would have given NBCUniversal a significant stake in the gaming world. An acquisition of EA would also have created opportunities for synergies between NBCUniversal’s vast catalog of sports rights and Electronic Arts’ popular EA Sports franchise, including Madden.