By Sophie Sassard
LONDON (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch's bid for Britain's Sky is expected to drive traditional European media players to do their own deals to attain the scale they need to compete with online platforms like Netflix for increasingly costly programs.
While Twenty-First Century Fox's offer for Sky is not a done deal, bankers and industry sources expect it will win control of a 22 million household pay-TV network in Britain, Ireland, Austria, Germany and Italy and spark deal-making. "Without doubt we will see further consolidation across the sector in the months ahead, and crucially, at a quickening pace," said David Elms, UK head of Media at KPMG.
Consolidation among European broadcasters such as ITV, Prosieben and RTL Group has so far been held back because the companies were pursuing different strategies focused on their home market.
However, the rapid emergence of global players such as Netflix and Amazon means scale is becoming crucial to buying and producing high-quality content. Sky's deal to bring Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland under one umbrella was a first move which others could follow, said the bankers.
"Scale is becoming increasingly important, with companies who have a broad suite of offerings in terms of content and distribution platforms growing in strength and, from an M&A perspective, increasing in firepower," KPMG's Elms said.
Murdoch's move to buy the 61 percent of Sky that Twenty-First Century Fox does not already own is the latest deal to marry a distribution network with content after AT&T's $85 billion bid to buy Time Warner Inc earlier this year.
The business case for bundled services including mobile, fixed-line communication and pay-TV services was also underlined by French telecom operator Orange which said earlier this week it would be interested in buying pay-TV channel Canal+ if owner Vivendi was to sell.
Analysts at UBS said such a move would mirror Telefonica acquiring pay-TV operator Digital+ in Spain and that Orange would benefit from cost synergies in areas such as call centers, customer billing, marketing and corporate overheads.
In Italy, Vivendi chairman and shareholder Vincent Bollore is seeking to take control of Silvio Berlusconi's TV and production house Mediaset.
Bollore, who controls Vivendi and owns 24 percent in Telecom Italia via Vivendi, is expected to use his web of shareholdings to strike more deals in Europe, bankers told Reuters.
BUYING THE BOX SET
Among the potential targets, bankers say ITV could appeal to both European and U.S. buyers given a low market value - down 26 percent since January - a strong brand and expanding production business which includes series such as Victoria, Come dine with Me and Coronation Street.
Cable and TV mogul John Malone's Liberty Global, is seen as a logical buyer as it already owns 10 percent of ITV and could distribute its content via its Virgin Media platform.
"Even if the regulator prevents Virgin Media from exclusively distributing ITV's content, Virgin could take advantage of the transfer of competence to then create its own exclusive content," one banker said. Others said that despite Malone's stake in ITV, others such as Liberty's sister company Discovery Communication or Germany's Prosieben could be interested in ITV.
Some of Europe's largest broadcasters have similar market values and could explore stock mergers to preserve their strong regional identities and fend off U.S. buyers.
So far, ITV has invested in its film studio, while Prosieben embarked on an ambitious digital strategy targeting 1.5 billion euros revenues by 2018 partly through bolt-on deals such as price comparison site Verivox.
But combining these businesses could make sense and help diversify from cyclical TV advertising, the bankers said.
In France cable operator Altice, which bought France's number 2 mobile player SFR two years ago, has recently created Altice Channel Factory and Altice Studios to offer exclusive content to its fixed and mobile clients.
Altice's content push is so far restricted to the French market, although the group led by French-Israeli billionaire Patrick Drahi operates telecoms and cable services in other European countries and in the U.S.
One potential hurdle to deals is that some of the largest European media companies have owners who value their influence and may not want to sell, said one of the bankers.
Despite this, dealmakers expect the battle for dominance of the airwaves triggered by Murdocch to keep them busy in 2017.
(Editing by Alexander Smith)