Nine topper Packer dies at 68

Kerry Packer, Nine Network topper and Australia’s richest man, died Monday at the age of 68.

A statement from the Packer family said the media magnate “died peacefully at home with his family at his bedside.” The news was read out live on Nine’s morning news show “The Today Show.”

Packer, whose fortune is estimated at more than A$8 billion ($5.8 billion), had a history of illness beginning with a childhood bout with polio. He suffered a heart attack while playing polo in 1990 and underwent heart bypass surgery later that year, but had a second heart attack in 1995. More recently Packer received a kidney transplant in 2000.

Packer is best known as owner of Publishing & Broadcasting Ltd., which owns Australia’s top-rated free-to-air network Nine, but he controlled an empire that ranged from magazines to diamond exploration, coal mines and casinos.

Through Nine, he also owned a 26% stake in Regency Entertainment, formed in 1991. (Arnon Milchan holds a 54% stake and Fox has the remaining 20%.) Packer also held a 25% stake in Oz feevee Foxtel. At one time he also owned the Hoyts Cinemas loop.

Known as a passionate gambler — he was said to have won 20 consecutive hands of baccarat in 20 minutes at $250,000 per hand in a Vegas casino — it has been rumored that Packer was paring back the Nine Network in preparation for a sale, so that he could focus more attention on his gambling businesses.

It would not be the first time he sold the web. One of Australia’s toughest businessmen, Packer sold Nine in 1987 to Aussie businessman Alan Bond, buying it back again three years later at a net gain of A$700 million.

Packer was passionate about his TV interests, however, and was known for his hands-on management of Nine, including his habit of phoning the network to ask for shows to be pulled if he did not approve of them.

“He did watch an awful lot of television, which is why I think he was so good at television,” said Gerald Stone, the first exec producer of Nine’s “60 Minutes.”

Stone told Macquarie Radio that Packer had given great support to the newsmag in its early days. ” ’60 Minutes’ would not have happened if Kerry Packer hadn’t said it should. Kerry decided that he didn’t care what it cost as long as it was good.”

“He’ll never be forgotten, and not just for his contribution to television journalism and television in general, but also I think he may well be remembered more for his contributions to cricket.”

In 1977, when the Australian Cricket Board turned down Nine’s A$1.5 million bid for TV rights to Aussie Test matches, Packer signed more than 50 top players to his own World Series Cricket, a controversial move that revolutionized the game and propelled it into the professional era.

In recent years, with his health failing, Packer has been handing the business over to son James.

The younger Packer is said to be “ready to take the reins” of the PBL empire and the transition has been smooth, with none of the drama surrounding fellow Aussie mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Packer is survived by his wife, a daughter and his son.

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