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Inside Move: Sky’s the limit?

Exec search stalls Murdoch son's rise

News Corp., whose business and stock price have been rollicking in recent months, suddenly confronts a task even more delicate than buying DirecTV or reviving Sky Italia: installing Rupert Murdoch’s 30-year old son James atop BSkyB even as the satcaster conducts a search for a new CEO.

When topper Tony Ball announced his resignation Sept. 23, some said James was a shoo-in for the high-profile job. By all accounts, he’s extremely bright. And he’s been cutting his teeth at Star TV in Asia for a few years.

Still, blatant nepotism at publicly traded companies can leave investors and insiders with a bad case of the jitters, and BSkyB shares skittered.

So a group of panicked institutional investors huddled last week, insisting BSkyB directors be “rigorous and objective” in their search for Ball’s successor. The board then hired global headhunter Spencer Stuart to find a more qualified replacement.

Variety asked News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin at a media conference if he thought a formal search would nix James’ chances.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Chernin said. Regarding James’ relative youth, he said, “People aren’t trying to pick someone based on age.”

“Anyway, there’s a search, and James should get a chance,” he added.

Observers hewed to a more pragmatic view.

“There’s no way an independent group is picking James out of all the execs in the world,” says one industry exec. “But I still think Rupert will figure out a way to get James in there.”

Older brother Lachlan, 32, is a vice chairman of News Corp. and oversees the New York Post, the Fox TV station group and the conglom’s Australian biz.

Either way, Wall Streeters seem unfazed.

“I don’t mind if James runs it,” says one. “They’re smart kids and they’ll be backed up by managers with more experience.

“If it’s a dynasty, it’s a dynasty. I wish I could do that for my kids,” he adds.

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