PRESS

A media magnate on a buying spree

MARY JANIGAN January 12 1987
PRESS

A media magnate on a buying spree

MARY JANIGAN January 12 1987

A media magnate on a buying spree

PRESS

The idea for an international awards show for music videos first occurred to John Martin, the music programming director for Toronto-based MuchMusic pay television network, in the spring of 1985. Six months later he mentioned his plan to an intrigued executive at Sky Channel, a London-based satellite television station owned by Australian-born media giant Rupert Murdoch. Working together,

Sky Channel and MuchMusic soon sold the notion to two other members of Murdoch’s communications empire, Australia’s Network 10 and Fox Television Stations Inc. in the United States—and to stations in Japan, France, Italy and Germany. When the three-hour special featuring 20 videos airs on Jan. 10, it is expected to reach a staggering 250 million viewers in 25 countries, including 18 nations that receive broadcasts from Murdochowned stations. Said Martin:

“Sky Channel brought all those connections to the table. The show would have happened eventually anyway—but that made it much easier.”

That unique television special is another example of the growth and influence of Murdoch’s far-flung and growing media empire. Over the past two years the 55-year-old Murdoch has engaged in a massive buying spree, and his media holdings now include more than 80 newspapers, 10 television stations and a film company, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. Analysts estimate that the profits of his Australia-based holding company, News Corp. Ltd., will reach $314 million for 1987—at least 30 per cent higher than the 1986 level. In Britain his four newspapers are thriving, despite an acrimonious labor dispute. Last month Murdoch purchased the Hong Kong South China Morning Post newspaper group, which is among the world’s most profitable publishing enterprises. And in the United States the seven television stations that make up Los Angeles-based Fox TV have signed more than 80 affiliates and now reach about 80 per cent of the nation’s viewers. That group is now the nucleus for an ambitious plan by Murdoch to found a fourth U.S. commercial television network.

The stunning expansion of Murdoch’s media empire has earned him a reputation as a shrewd businessman. Fred Oldfield, a New Yorkbased analyst with the Australian firm Potter Partners, said that many experts believed that Murdoch paid too much when he bought six Metro-

media Inc. television stations, which formed the base of Fox TV, for $2.1 billion last March. “Now those stations are coming into their own and proving him successful again,” said Oldfield.

Indeed, Murdoch’s U.S. acquisitions—including the purchase of Twentieth Century-Fox in March, 1985—have become the mainstay of his corporate operations. Almost 60 per cent of News Corp.’s first-quarter operating profits for 1986-1987 came from its U.S. subsidiaries, especially the film and television companies. Said John Reidy, a media analyst with New York broker Drexel Burnham Lambert: “He is very opportunistic, and his instincts have proved good.”

Despite that bright picture, Murdoch’s dream of creating a fourth U.S. television network from the Foxaffiliated stations is an enormous gamble. His first syndicated program-comedian Joan Rivers’ talk show—began last October. Future plans include a show produced by comedian Bill Cosby. Murdoch, who became a U.S. citizen in September, 1985, has claimed that “a network is the only way to generate the money to make programming of an acceptable standard.” But analysts note that the share of prime-time viewing of the three major networks fell to 77 per cent last year from 87 per cent less than five years ago. Said British journalist David Bowen, a longtime Murdoch watcher: “He could lose his shirt on that.”

But Murdoch has consistently proved that he is not averse to taking big risks. Last January, after three years of talks with Britain’s powerful print unions, he simply fired 5,500 workers and moved his four newspapers to a new, highly automated printing plant in London’s East End. Profits for the four papers— The Times, The Sunday g Times, The Sun and The News 5 of the World—ave expected to climb to an estimated $196 mils' lion from $142 million in 1985£ 1986. And a yearlong union| sponsored boycott and strike ñ have had little effect.

Murdoch’s only recent major setback was in his native Australia, where he inherited his first newspaper, the Adelaide News, from his father in 1952. Last month he bid $1.6 billion to buy Australia’s largest media company, Herald and Weekly Times Ltd., which controls more than 130 newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations. The board of the Herald Group recommended that its shareholders accept that bid, provided a higher offer did not emerge. Then, two weeks ago Australia’s richest man, Robert Holmes à Court, made a counteroffer of $1.9 billion. Unless the ambitious expatriate tops that bid, it will be the only vexing blow in an otherwise booming year.

-MARY JANIGAN with LARRY BLACK in New York and ROSS LAVER in London

LARRY BLACK

ROSS LAVER