LONDON For an early birthday present, it was quite a gift — a media empire straddling two continents. Included were two profitable pay TV platforms and some of the world’s most influential newspapers.
Or to put it another way — on Dec. 5 James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s youngest son, ran BSkyB, Europe’s most successful pay TV platform in terms of viewers and income.
The next day News Corp. announced that Murdoch fils had been promoted to CEO of the conglom’s operations in Europe and Asia.
The elevation handed James Murdoch, who celebrated his 35th birthday Dec. 13, control of the U.K. News Intl. press operation covering four papers, satcaster Sky Italia, a suite of TV channels in eastern Europe, the MySpace website, Asia’s Star TV and, for good measure, overall command of BSkyB in his new role as chairman.
It was the final confirmation that James is perceived by his father as heir apparent.
In Blighty, where James Murdoch was born, news of the BSkyB toppers’ anointment as the chosen successor to take over News Corp. was greeted positively.
This was in stark contrast to how he was viewed four years earlier when he took over the top job at BSkyB amid charges of nepotism from sceptical investors.
The Harvard drop-out, who ran hip-hop label Rawkus Records before going on to manage Star TV in Asia, has transformed BSkyB from a one-dimensional pay TV company into a modern media outfit embracing broadband, telephony, personal video technology and high-definition TV.
But the most audacious act by Murdoch during his four years in charge of the satcaster was his dawn raid on terrestrial rival ITV. Last November he paid almost $2 billion for a controlling stake to scupper a bid from rival Virgin Media.
Murdoch, who despite his considerable fortune still likes to act like he’s an outsider, said he thought of buying a stake in ITV while flying to Barcelona with his chief financial officer, Jeremy Darroch, the new BSkyB topper.
“We have been looking at ITV for some time,” he told the BBC. “We consulted the board two days after that, and the day after that we did the deal.”
On the London TV scene, Murdoch has been a rejuvenating presence.
He may be into Green politics, but his outspokenness on sensitive issues like media regulators — BSkyB is subject to at least three separate regulatory inquiries in the U.K. — and the BBC shows he is a chip off the old block.
Last year in a tough speech, he derided Blighty’s powerful media regulator, Ofcom, as “authoritarian” and denounced the BBC’s famous founder, John Reith, as someone with “a pretty firm view of the need to keep the lower classes in order.”
In a rare interview earlier this year with U.K. business monthly Management Today, he said the London media elite housed in fashionable Soho regarded BSkyB’s HQ, located adjacent to the Heathrow Airport flight approach path, “as a bunch of mud huts.”
So how will James Murdoch fare running his father’s U.K. newspaper empire that includes bestselling tabloid The Sun and loss-making broadsheet The Times?
“Frankly the jury is out,” reckons a media analyst. “Unlike Rupert, James hasn’t grown up in the newspaper industry. His experience is in broadcasting and a lot of people won’t like him in newspapers because of that.”