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Lion and scion gird for future

Murdoch & Roberts: An unlikely duo

Rupert Murdoch and Brian Roberts would appear an unlikely duo. The movie version would require a pairing on the order of Michael Gambon and Matthew Broderick.

Yet these two moguls — the chiefs of News Corp. and Comcast (and barring major mishap NBC Universal), respectively — seem destined to take center stage in the arranged wedding of technology and content, helping sort out thorny questions surrounding what’s paid for and what remains free in the wilds of online media.

Both of their companies are partners in Hulu, which last week announced formal plans to begin charging for a portion of its online content. But jumping through Hulu hoops is only the start of their high-wire act.

In terms of profiles, it’s certainly an interesting dichotomy. Roberts is the son who went into his father’s business, while Murdoch is the lion in winter determined to pass stewardship of his sprawling empire to his kids. And while other CEOs are staring at the same confounding chess board, these two and their lieutenants look uniquely positioned to establish key templates on multiple fronts.

Murdoch’s vanguard role regarding new media, oddly, is partially wrapped up in his quaint commitment to one of the oldest ones, print.

It’s not clear Murdoch recognized any untapped potential in newspapers as he kept acquiring and holding onto them, even as Wall Street belittled his strategy. Murdoch doubtless feels a sense of urgency to ensure print can remain a part of his company’s portfolio once he’s no longer around to run the show. (A new book, “War for the Wall Street Journal,” notes that the mogul and his company have lost billions stemming from the $5.6 billion acquisition.)

Still, his control of such major properties as the Wall Street Journal, which already sits behind a paywall, and the company’s U.K. papers, has given News Corp. a leadership role in determining how the print pieces shake out, along with the New York Times and others that have determined “free” represents a difficult business model.

Even now, three years after buying the Journal, Murdoch’s plans for the paper have as yet to fully coalesce, including cross-pollination with his other media holdings. Then again, beyond the shared ideology of the paper’s conservative editorial page, Fox News Channel and the New York Post, dreams of synergistic bliss have generally eluded TV-print combinations, as up-for-sale Newsweek — despite heavy TV exposure for its correspondents — and Tribune Co. have discovered.

Roberts, meanwhile, is a step removed from other studio CEOs by virtue of his new-kid-on-the-block status in their insular ranks and his deep roots in cable systems, another distribution medium seemingly living on borrowed time in a broadband world.

Remember, NBC Universal marks Comcast’s second bid for a studio whose image was somewhat tarnished by the woes of its broadcast network. Comcast’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire Disney in 2004 — when ABC was at its nadir, before “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” — telegraphed Roberts’ belief that expanding the company’s content footprint was crucial to its future, even if investors pooh-poohed that deal as well.

These issues have graduated from theoretical pie-in-the-sky discussions to pragmatic matters at gatherings like this week’s Allen & Co. summit in Sun Valley, where CEOs get to play Monopoly with real companies.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg TV, IAC chairman Barry Diller — who will attend that event and once oversaw Fox under Murdoch — said content providers are “beginning to push” for payment for their product. Despite resistance, he predicted, they will eventually succeed, albeit after they “jumble around awkwardly” for several years.

“That’s part of the inevitability, and it’s part of the evolution,” Diller said.

Ultimately, Roberts needs to prove that he gambled wisely on NBC Universal and can capitalize on its content in new dimensions. For his part, Murdoch has the opportunity to take his print holdings — long considered an ode to his vanity, and perhaps hubris — and transform them into an asset, not an economic drag.

The main question now, to use Diller’s evolutionary analogy, is which of these media behemoths are going to wind up extinct, and which one will walk upright.

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