Shine, News Corp. talks: Murdochs in family way?

Possible acquisition leads to talk of succession plans

Word that News Corp. is in talks to possibly acquire Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group has stirred a new round of speculation about succession questions within Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

Is Liz about to be groomed to take the CEO reins from her father? Or do the Shine talks indicate Rupe wants her to take over a combined BSkyB and Shine Group and international operations while her brother James relocates to New York for the last leg of his CEO apprenticeship?

James Murdoch has served as chairman-CEO of Europe and Asiasince late 2007. And then there’s Lachlan Murdoch, who has not had an exec role in the family biz since 2005 but remains a News Corp. board member, as does James.

Elisabeth Murdoch declined an invitation to join the company’s board last year in order to maintain her status as an independent player in the U.K. TV market, where Shine has blossomed into a powerhouse player.

In recent years, Elisabeth Murdoch had made it clear she was dedicated to building her own business and prized her independence.

“I’m at the beginning of a journey with Shine. How that plays out I don’t know, but I’m never going to leave it behind,” she said in a March interview with Brit newspaper the Guardian. “It is my vehicle, it’s representative of me. I never want to not be part of it.”

But on Friday, Shine confirmed it has hired JPMorgan to advise the company on “strategic options and growth opportunities.”

Shine has grown rapidly through acquisitions — including the 2008 buyout of Ben Silverman’s Reveille banner. It’s also been on a worldwide expansion kick, setting up production and distribution offices in Oz and Germany and striking partnerships in other territories. But the company’s growth options may be narrowing as the U.K. indie sector is quickly consolidating. Warner Bros. swooped in to buy Shine rival Shed Media last year. NBC Universal brought drama production shop Carnival in 2008, and both Time Warner and NBC Universal have been seen as potential contenders for Shine.

A report Friday in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph suggested that talks between Shine and News Corp. were “progressing well.” British media reports pegged the value of Shine at $950 million-$1.3 billion.

BSkyB, which is controlled by News Corp., owns 13% of Shine, while Sony holds 20% and Elisabeth Murdoch controls 53%.

A rep for News Corp. declined comment on the Shine talks. Reports of the talks come as News Corp. is in the thick of its bid to take over all of BSkyB, which has drawn flak from competitors and major scrutiny from Brit regulators. That has some wondering about the timing of the Shine talks from News Corp.’s perspective.

News Corp. insiders downplayed the importance of the Murdoch family succession issues as a driving force in the Shine talks.

A Shine spokesman said: “Whilst we would not comment on speculation, Shine Group can confirm that given the current consolidation within the international production sector, the company has appointed JPMorgan to advise it on its strategic options and growth opportunities.” The rep emphasized that the review “may or may not result in a transaction.”

(Steve Clarke contributed to this report.)

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