Lionsgate Vice Chair Says Starz Carriage Renewal Talks With Comcast Could "Get Nasty"

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Michael Burns

Michael Burns also talked possible merger partners and a Starz sale during an appearance at an investors conference.

Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns on Thursday warned upcoming carriage renewal talks with Comcast for its Starz and Starz Encore services could produce a heated battle.

"Could it get nasty? Sure. I'm not sure anyone benefits from that, but sometimes it's necessary," the exec told the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2019 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference in Beverly Hills during a session that was webcast.

Shares of Lionsgate plunged Aug. 30 amid rumors that Comcast will not renew a pact that makes Starz and Starz Encore available to its cable TV subscribers as part of its main lineup, though stock in the Hollywood studio has since recovered in value.

The deadline for a renewal is just over three months away as the current carriage deal is expected to expire at the end of the year. "Ultimately, most of these deals one way or the other get worked out, particularly if it's a profitable business for the MSOs," added Burns.

The exec also discussed the studio's merger prospects as he outlined to investors — and possible suitors like streaming and phone giants — Lionsgate's vast array of entertainment properties. "It's very hard to replicate the assets we have. Are we big enough to go it alone? Yeah, we can make real money. Is there some sort of strategic alliance that make sense, at the appropriate time? Sure," Burns ventured.

Companies like Amazon, Verizon and Apple have been rumored to be possible buyers of Lionsgate amid another round of industry consolidation. "There's a few of these tangential giant companies that have a way to leverage content in a way that few others do. So I think there will be more exciting players in our space. The question is, are we the acquirer, are we acquired or strategically aligned? We're not big enough to compete in some of these spaces," Burns conceded. 

The Lionsgate exec, without naming ViacomCBS. also talked about Starz as a possible takeover target for the studio. CBS earlier this summer was rumored to be eyeing the premium cable channel as an acquisition target for $5 billion, but that was before it made official a merger with Viacom.

"I think there's a lot of people who are interested in that asset. If you're right about that $5 billion number, we'd have more cash in cash on our balance sheet and no debt. But then what are we? That's a conversation we have to have with ourselves and our directors," Burns told the conference.

"Our feeling is we will continue to build that asset ... but you never know what shows up," he said.