Rival dealmakers in a new Space race

The first conversation I ever had with Rupert Murdoch took place 15 years ago, and the circumstances were dire. A dedicated deal junkie, Murdoch had overextended himself financially and his bankers were closing in. As the new editor of Variety, I had called Murdoch to ask the obvious question: How are you going to work yourself out of this mess?

Inviting me to drop over to his office, Murdoch showed me a stack of financial documents. He then casually acknowledged that he’d made some serious strategic mistakes and intended to bow and scrape before financial backers to get his company back on track.

In his customary Murdochian manner, he was at once perspiring yet persevering.

I thought of this encounter last week as the latest trauma at Viacom unfolded. Sumner Redstone, like Murdoch, has single-handedly hammered together an amazing global media machine. And, like Murdoch, he periodically becomes exasperated at its performance and impatient with his key aides.

I was at a party last year when Redstone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to Murdoch, standing not far away. “I don’t really know that man,” Redstone said.

“I’m sure he’d like to remedy that,” I replied. Even as I offered to forge an introduction, I noticed Redstone, not a reticent man, slicing through the crowd in Murdoch’s direction. They shook hands and talked for at least half an hour.

I’m not sure what they talked about, but I know one topic they avoided: MySpace. Both moguls at the time shared the apprehension that their companies weren’t being aggressive in the brave new world of new media. Redstone had asked his chief Viacom lieutenant, Tom Freston, to investigate MySpace, and Viacom’s attorneys were soon involved in their due diligence.

Murdoch, however, quickly countered with a pre-emptive offer of $580 million, accompanied by a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. MySpace went to Murdoch.

Redstone has been simmering ever since. Having split Viacom into two massive entities, he’s been frustrated by the sagging share price of Freston’s wing relative to that headed by Les Moonves. There was also the matter of style. Tom Freston is a gracious 60-year-old with a broad range of interests and an iconoclastic nature. The last time I had lunch with him we talked as much about Iraq as about corporate strategy.

I’m persuaded Freston, while immensely well liked in the industry, never imagined himself as a media mogul, with thousands of employees awaiting his every command. Hence, he was not a perfect fit for Sumner Redstone, whose life revolves round his corporation. Redstone has confronted this issue before: In earlier years he’d become impatient with Frank Biondi’s laconic style and with Mel Karmazin’s monolithic decision-making. In each case, Redstone made the change but Viacom kept growing.

There are indications the situation may be more precarious this time. The attitude of the investment community reflects an uncertainty about Viacom’s direction — hence a continued sag in price. Paramount, MTV and other corporate units, already traumatized by abrupt management changes, could be immobilized by still further shifts. Brad Grey, the studio chieftain, is a Freston recruit, and some wonder how he will react to the rule of Philippe Dauman and Tom Dooley, both polished executives, but zealous numbers crunchers nonetheless.

By contrast, Murdoch’s domain seems like a sea of equanimity. To be sure: News Corp. has its own fierce rivalries and executive tensions. A misstep brings a dreaded call from Rupert. Still, the House of Murdoch continues to produce remarkable results with a minimum of management upheaval. And MySpace remains in the headlines with its aggressive initiatives aimed at its young constituency.

The studio, meanwhile, retains its almost stolid perspective. Under Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos (a team many predicted would never hold together), Fox continues to hammer out excellent results year after year — witness recent hits ranging from “Ice Age: The Meltdown” to “X-Men: The Last Stand” to “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Little Miss Sunshine.” The studio is no favorite among Oscar voters. It boasts no megablockbusters like “Spider-Man.” Agents and attorneys complain it’s still the toughest place in town to close a deal, but its profit margins are significantly higher than those of its competitors.

Other studios, like Warner Bros., Sony, and, of course, Paramount, which have had to endure major cyclical bumps, acknowledge they envy the “Steady-Eddie” performance of the Fox studio.

None of this is intended to suggest that the House of Murdoch is immune to future crises. Some observers feel that Rupert’s hubris over the MySpace deal may spur him to seek reckless adventures in new media. At the same time, Murdoch’s top lieutenant, Peter Chernin, has been in place for 10 years and exerts at once a zeal for growth yet a thoughtful and moderating influence.

Sumner and Rupert, to be sure, each yearn for still one more spectacular megadeal. Both want not only MySpace but something far more cosmic — More Space. They want the world.

But they pursue vastly divergent styles of getting there.

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