Disney did not respond to queries on Tuesday. A Fox spokesman declined to comment.
Behind Disney’s interest in a deal is a zealous effort to dramatically lessen its reliance on traditional television, a business built on third-party cable and satellite subscriptions that surged for the last two decades but is now in decline. Instead, Disney has begun pivoting toward what it sees as a new growth engine: subscription streaming services that bring its movies and TV shows directly to consumers. Disney’s first major streaming effort, ESPN Plus, will arrive in the spring. A second and still-unnamed offering, built around the company’s Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar brands, will roll out late next year.
Disney has sought the 21st Century Fox assets to bolster those efforts and add a third service to its streaming portfolio. That would be Hulu, which focuses on older viewers with programming that includes ABC shows and original programming like “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Disney, which already has a stake in the service, would own about 60 percent of Hulu if it completes the deal with 21st Century Fox.
By self-distributing content in a major way, Disney would help fortify itself against competition from Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Google. Those companies have built online entertainment operations that have become wildly popular, particularly with the young viewers coveted by Disney.
Disney, for instance, has already said that it will eventually pull Disney, Pixar, Marvel and the “Star Wars” movies from Netflix and offer them on its own service. Controlling the Fox library — which includes the “X-Men” movies, TV shows like “The Simpsons,” FX series like “The Americans” and classic films like “The Sound of Music” — would give Disney additional leverage. 21st Century Fox has lately been moving its library content to Hulu in the United States, but Netflix relies on Fox licensing deals in many other countries.
Netflix has shrugged off the loss of Disney content by noting that it has aggressively moved toward making its own movies and shows. Next year, it will spend an estimated $7 billion on original programming. A Netflix spokesman declined to comment on Tuesday.
Of course, original hits can be hard to find. Amazon recently retooled its programming strategy, veering away from highbrow dramas like “Z: The Beginning of Everything” and “The Last Tycoon.” Apple has also struggled in its early efforts to deliver compelling original content, although its first Hollywood-style offerings remain in development.
Since taking over as Disney’s chief executive in 2005, Robert A. Iger has dramatically expanded Disney’s theme park operations, opening the Shanghai Disney Resort against all odds and nearly tripling the size of Disney Cruise Line. Walt Disney Studios, bolstered by Mr. Iger’s acquisitions of Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, has become Hollywood’s runaway leader.
But pulling off the acquisition of 21st Century Fox would be another matter entirely, dwarfing Mr. Iger’s previous deals and creating complex integration challenges. Some executives who work at Fox’s studio offices in Los Angeles have been complaining bitterly about the prospect of Disney management.
“Power outages here at the office,” one Fox executive wrote on Twitter last week. “Not sure if it’s related to the fires or just the first phase of Disney cost cutting measures.”
The Murdochs were not seen as sellers as recently as October. “This potential about-face is startling,” Mr. Nathanson said.
One question that has not been resolved, and may not be by the time a deal is announced, is whether James Murdoch, Mr. Murdoch’s younger son and the current chief executive of 21st Century Fox, would join Disney. Were he to do so — and leave the family business — the younger Mr. Murdoch could potentially oversee the international broadcast operations, one of the people briefed on the matter said, though negotiations over any such role were still under review. Disney insiders have downplayed speculation that he could eventually take the chief executive reins from Mr. Iger.
To complete a 21st Century Fox integration and guarantee that Disney’s streaming services are introduced without problems — two legacy-defining high-wire acts — Mr. Iger may well renew his contract for a fourth time. He is currently set to retire in July of 2019.
Though Comcast had also vied for 21st Century Fox’s assets, the cable giant never gained as much traction. In a statement on Monday, Comcast conceded that it was out of the running. “We never got the level of engagement needed to make a definitive offer,” the company said.
A deal between Comcast and Fox could have posed antitrust issues, especially at a time when the Justice Department has sued to block AT&T’s $85.4 billion takeover of Time Warner. A deal with Disney was seen as potentially posing fewer problems, but deal makers have said that little is certain in the current regulatory environment.
Analysts said that Disney’s two biggest governmental hurdles would most likely involve the regional sports networks, which would add to ESPN’s dominance, and the 20th Century Fox movie studio, which employees 3,200 people and has been controlled by Mr. Murdoch since 1985. Together, Disney and Fox last year controlled about 40 percent of the movie tickets sold in the United States
But Disney and Fox, for the most part, make very different films. The contrast was on display on Monday, when Fox received 27 Golden Globe nominations for its movies, including indie-style Fox Searchlight dramas like “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Disney, which relies on sequels, remakes and comic-book adaptations, received two nominations.
Disney has not divulged any plans for Fox’s movie operation, but it would almost assuredly cut it back and refocus certain divisions on making movies that can be distributed online instead of in theaters.