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Fox-Comcast battle to buy U.K.'s Sky to be settled by rare auction

Sky broadcasts to 23 million households across Europe with its mix of sports and entertainment.

LONDON — Comcast and 21st Century Fox will settle their battle for control of broadcaster Sky through a rare auction designed to put an end to months of offers and counteroffers from the American media empires seeking a foothold in the European pay TV market.

The auction will begin after the London stock market's close on Friday and end sometime Saturday evening following a maximum of three rounds of bidding, Britain's Takeover Panel said in a statement.

It would mark a dramatic resolution of Sky's fate, which has been up in the air ever since Fox made its first bid in December 2016.

Fox's takeover was held up by regulatory scrutiny of the proposed deal and was then gatecrashed by Comcast earlier this year.

Comcast, which owns the parent company of NBC News, NBCUniversal, currently leads Fox in the fight with a $34.3 billion offer. Fox has bid $32.5 billion for the 61 percent of the satellite broadcaster it does not own.

Walt Disney has also agreed to a separate deal to buy TV and film assets from Fox, including its Sky shareholding, for about $71 billion.

The fight for Sky is part of a bigger battle being waged in the entertainment industry as the growth of Netflix and Amazon force the world's traditional media giants to spend tens of billions of dollars to keep pace.

An auction for Sky, which broadcasts to 23 million households across Europe, would the biggest ever deal in the U.K. to be decided by a panel-run auction.

The panel said it called the auction "to provide an orderly framework for the resolution of this competitive situation."

Fox, as the current low bidder, will have the right to make a new offer during the first round of the auction, and Comcast will have the opportunity to counter it during the second round. Both parties will have the chance to make increased offers during the third and final round. All bids must be in cash.

Sky was formed in 1990 when Murdoch merged his fledgling British satellite TV service with a rival, and is a broadcaster of sports, films and TV shows.

Fox's bid is the most recent effort by Rupert Murdoch to take full control of the valuable media company.

His last bid foundered amid a 2011 phone-hacking scandal, in which journalists working for Murdoch newspapers were accused of gaining illegal access to the voicemail messages of crime victims, celebrities and members of the royal family.

News Corp., which is controlled by the Murdochs, withdrew its bid for Sky soon after.