License article

Stokes channel surfs, to what end?

KERRY Stokes is a master asset trader, an opportunist and a man who with leverage would be loath not to use it. Right now he has leverage over Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd and James Packer, but not as much as he had last week, thanks to the competition regulator.

News Ltd needs to get its hands on another 25 per cent of Foxtel and the 50 per cent of Fox Sports it does not own. Packer wants money and is willing to accept Rupert's offer to buy the pay TV assets that are housed inside Consolidated Media in which he has a 50 per cent holding.

But Stokes has enough shares in ConsMedia to block this deal and stymie both Murdoch and Packer - as such he is the fly in the ointment. However, he has to find a way of doing so which provides him with some gain rather than shooting himself in the foot.

Stokes' long-held quest to retain and increase his interest in pay television won't be easy to execute.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission yesterday gave a very strong signal that it doesn't like the idea of a bloke who controls a television network having his foot in too much of the pay TV industry.

Stokes' Seven Group has said it will go back to the ACCC and argue its case for buying the remainder of ConsMedia, but you wouldn't want to bet on the chances of success.


Neither can he horsetrade pay TV assets with Murdoch in return for allowing Murdoch's takeover bid for ConsMedia to succeed - the ACCC made that pretty clear as well.

So where does Stokes' leverage leave him?

He can refuse Murdoch's offer for ConsMedia, or perhaps accept it and try to extract a higher price. Neither of these scenarios suits Stokes, the latter less than the former.

Murdoch can always proceed with the bid for ConsMedia and leave Stokes' Seven Group in as a 24 per cent minority shareholder, but this would ultimately cause both parties lots of grief. So it becomes something of a Mexican stand-off.

We know Packer wants the money to fund his expansion plan for Crown casinos - part of which is increasing its interests in competitor Echo Entertainment.

News Ltd needs to get some cash flow generating assets into its Australian operations, soon to form part of a demerged international print business, which is in earnings decline.

Stokes wants to increase rather than decrease his exposure to pay TV. But the missing piece of information in this puzzle is the financial health of the Stokes-controlled companies.

Across Seven Group Holdings and Seven West Media it has large interests in television, print and mining services.

While it has the best house in the street in television, the industry is still subdued, and if mineral commodity prices continue to decline as they have over the past couple of months, there will be some pressure on mining services companies also.