John Malone says to play it cool

Liberty Media chairman focusing on long-term strategy

NEW YORK -- Media stocks might be depressed amid the current financial crisis and economic worries, and private-equity buyers might have lost power amid the credit crunch, but John Malone sees little acquisition opportunity in the sector right now and also prefers to play it conservative.

"In the shortest run, one would be imprudent to set sail for a long-term strategy until we see how the current credit and economic cycle turns out," the Liberty Media chairman said Friday at his firm's Investor Day in Manhattan.

He added that though many sector stocks are down and possibly attractive for investors, the related companies often are not for sale at these low levels. "I'm not aware at the moment of businesses that could be bought cheap," Malone told the Wall Street crowd.

He earned chuckles when he added, "If we wanted to buy something in investment banking, we might find something."

Malone again also downplayed the likelihood of a merger between satellite giant DirecTV, which Liberty controls, and Dish Network.

"I don't think it is worth either company's energy or effort" given that the regulatory environment hasn't changed much since a previous merger plan was struck down in Washington. He argued that telecom companies' video services hadn't become competitive enough so far.

However, Malone didn't rule out a possible merger down the line, saying in a year or after that "anything crazy can happen."

He again argued in favor of the two satellite firms looking for cooperation opportunities in such areas as channel launches and broadband services.

DirecTV CEO Chase Carey delivered a presentation at the meeting that highlighted further growth opportunities for his company.

Meanwhile, Liberty CEO Greg Maffei lamented the "sobering experience" of stock markets this year but lauded Liberty's various tracking stocks for having done well compared with other media stocks.

Wall Street folks asked the executives Friday whether the recently announced transformation of the Liberty Entertainment tracking stock -- which includes a 50% stake in DirecTV -- into an asset-based security soon will lead to a full merger with DirecTV.

Although this has been a widely expected scenario, Malone cautioned that Wall Street shouldn't necessarily expect "some quick shotgun marriage."

In a rare plug, Maffei on Friday also lauded the success and recent Emmy for "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer," produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Prods., in which Liberty holds a 65% stake. "We're very proud to be a part of that," Maffei said.