Liberty Global CEO: No Big Acquisitions on Horizon

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Liberty Global recently acquired a small stake in U.K. broadcaster ITV

CEO Mike Fries says the company's annual content costs are $8 per sub, 80 percent less than Comcast's

John Malone's international cable giant Liberty Global is not planning big acquisitions of content companies, CEO Mike Fries told an investor conference in New York on Friday.

Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, he said recent deals, such as one to acquire U.K. production firm All3Media in a joint deal with Discovery Communications, have been small, high-return and strategic. They "don't portend anything bigger or grander," Fries said. But he reiterated that the idea that a big company like Liberty Global wouldn't have its fingers in some content pots would be "crazy."

Summarized Fries: "We don't have any big transaction on the horizon."

Could Liberty Global acquire a big broadcaster after buying a free-to-air broadcaster in Belgium? Fries said that deal was small and had unique benefits.

Discussing the recent acquisition of a small stake in ITV, he said it was "just an opportunistic investment that gives us a seat at the table" and "does not portend anything with that company." He added that "owning a broadcaster would be a big step for us and is not one we are contemplating today."

Asked about U.K. pay TV giant BSkyB's plan to acquire Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland and how it would affect Liberty Global, Fries said: "I don't think it changes anything at all. I think they have just taken a page out of our playbook."

Calling it a "smart" transaction, he said the companies are mostly partners even though they also compete for pay TV subscribers.

Asked if he was concerned about a significant increase in programming costs in Europe similar to U.S. trends, Fries told the Goldman conference that the U.S. and Europe were very different markets. Liberty Global spends about $2 billion per year on content, "roughly $8 a subscriber, I think that's 80 percent less per sub than Comcast spends, and I don't see that rising," he said. "Europe is different." Comcast reported 2013 programming costs of $9.1 billion for its cable business.

He cited the highly fragmented nature of pay TV markets in Europe, saying that Liberty Global has more leverage over content companies than pay TV firms have in the U.S.

He also suggested that retransmission fee trends will also play out differently in Europe. While they have grown fast in the U.S., the U.K., where ITV has pushed for them, will likely over time move to some fees paid by pay TV firms to broadcasters. But Fries suggested: "I don't think it will be material. It will take a while."

Discussing competition from Netflix and other online video providers in Europe, Fries said, "I don't think we have lostr a single customer" to Netflix and others. He added that the shift to more online viewing was happening more slowly in Europe than in the U.S. with only around 5 percent of time spent on it, compared to 15 percent-20 percent, he said.

But Fries said that "we certainly agree that consumers will and increasingly are watching TV in different ways" and Liberty Global was looking to get ahead of that trend by launching new services and products.

Fries also got questions about the future of Liberty Global's smaller Latin American business. The company previously said it may spin it off to allow the Latin American unit to make acquisitions as a standalone firm. But on Friday he said the company would more likely decide on launching a tracking stock for the Latin American business to highlight it to investors without separating the businesses completely. He said final decisions would likely be announced soon.  

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai

 
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