Analysis: The assets Murdoch could eye to buy

What better time for Rupert Murdoch to announce a shopping spree than just before Black Friday?

With $10 billion in cash on News Corp.’s balance sheet and recent media reports seeding word from company insiders that the mogul is in “shopping mode,” it’s clear that Murdoch is on the prowl for potential acquisitions. What isn’t as clear is what he’s looking to buy.

Murdoch was definitely busy heading into the holiday season: Last week, he plunked down about $1.5 billion for a 49% stake in YES Network. The Wall Street Journal reported days later that that News Corp. approached CBS Corp. about grabbing book publisher Simon & Schuster, a prospect both companies didn’t deny. And a New York Times piece last week quoted a source close to News Corp’s dealmaking team saying Murdoch is “definitely rubbing his hands together” in anticipation of possible acquisitions.

Then over the weekend came a Deadline report suggesting that Fox Sports was close to striking a deal to get to the TV rights for the Los Angeles Dodgers for the next 25 years for as much as $7 billion. Earlier in November, the conglom paid Disney $250 million to assume total control of its Asian TV sports programmer ESPN Star Sports.

At this juncture, maybe only Santa Claus knows what else is on Murdoch’s wish list. But with News Corp. about to split into two separate companies next month, these next purchases will be critical for establishing perception that both halves are headed down the right bifurcated path.

Declaring an intent to shop might seem a bit much, but given where Murdoch is at right now, he has ample reason for making a show of making a plan.

M&A has not always been Murdoch’s forte, at least as gauged by observers’ views of the $650 million acquisition of MySpace in 2005 and the $5.7 billion grab of Dow Jones two years later.

The latter purchase did nothing to dispel the notion that Murdoch’s purse strings are likelier to be loosened by whatever tickles his fancy — namely, newspapers — than a disciplined vision regarding what’s strategically right for News Corp.

And there’s always the persistent rumor that Murdoch indulged his love of newspapers by making an overture to Tribune Co. for the Los Angeles Times. News Corp. denied that any such talks took place, perhaps sensitive to the notion that Murdoch might just be following his bliss again.

Murdoch certainly isn’t stopping the gradual shift in his image from mercenary to mercurial on Twitter, where nary a week goes by that he doesn’t voice something — via his personal account — that doesn’t give off the impression of stability. At 81, a mogul needs to project a more sensible vibe, and tweeting as he did earlier this month that Jewish media honchos are anti-Israel isn’t the smoothest move.

Given the dark cloud that has hung over Murdoch for much of the year due to the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, who could blame him for looking to a little retail therapy to chase the blues away?

The scandal killed the conglom’s chances of upping its 39% stake in BSkyB to full ownership, so the satcaster is likely off limits to News Corp. anytime soon. But make no mistake, that goodie may be what Murdoch is pining for most. It’s like a Tickle Me Elmo, Cabbage Patch Kid and Furby all rolled into one.

Such a purchase would also go further than anything else on the company’s shopping list toward making a dent in the $10 billion in excess News Corp. cash that’s burning a hole in Murdoch’s pocket. That sum seemed all the more puzzling in September when News Corp. borrowed an additional $1 billion. That’s a lot of money dressed up with no place to go.

So where is Rupe going to swoop next?

The YES Network sale and potential Dodger deal could fill the gap left by BSkyB and underscore the notion of just how crucial sports is to News Corp. Disney may have the shiniest object of all in ESPN but there have been whispers for a while that Murdoch wants a sports empire of comparable size for his very own.

News Corp. is already heavily entrenched in the regional sports network business — a money-minting machine if there ever was one, given its sky-high affiliate fees and DVR-proof advertising revenues. That said, Murdoch should tread carefully in pursuing a deal for Dodgers rights: Los Angeles could end up ground zero for a pay TV subscriber rebellion given how the growing multiplicity of new RSNs in the city are going to drive up already stratospheric monthly bills.

Elsewhere in the sports-rights world, there was so much dealmaking in 2012 that there isn’t much available. But here’s one hot property to keep an eye on: the $465 million rights to the NBA that Disney and Turner have locked up through 2016. Murdoch may have to box out both ESPN’s George Bodenheimer and NBCUniversal’s Steve Burke for that prize.

News Corp. may already be feeling a little Disney envy considering the Mouse House is coming off quite a coup with its $4 billion Lucasfilm acquisition. Bob Iger is the M&A master that Murdoch can only wish to be, having put the Pixar, Marvel and Jim Henson Co. brands under the Mouse banner.

Surely there must be an appetite within News Corp. to snap up some blue-chip intellectual property capable of spawning sequels for 20th Century Fox. Warner Bros. is done with “Harry Potter”; what is the statute of limitations between finale and reboot, anyway?

There are plenty more options that News Corp. can explore to spruce up the entertainment half of a newly split conglom, like some of the second-tier cable content divisions that analysts have been predicting are likely to get consolidated, like AMC Networks or Scripps Networks. You can never have too much leverage at the negotiation table these days with pay TV distributors, especially if you don’t have a foot in the distribution business yourself like NBCUniversal.

Starz would seem an attractive candidate given that Liberty Media’s spinoff essentially puts the premium cabler into play, but 20th’s long-term renewal of its output deal with HBO in August all but kills the possibility of a News Corp. acquisition.

If Murdoch really wants a premium cabler, he may want to take a meeting with Carl Icahn about Netflix, which is looking more and more like an acquisition target with each passing day. Netflix isn’t a premium channel in the conventional sense of the word, but since 20th is already in business with the streaming service on a new season of “Arrested Development,” a successful launch of that effort could make Murdoch warm to the possibility.

The tech sector hasn’t been kind to Murdoch, who has divested pretty much every single new-media acquisition News Corp. has made in the last decade (MySpace, Photobucket, Beliefnet, Rotten Tomatoes, Fox Mobile Group, etc.). But with a small investment in hot streaming device Roku in July and a new chief technology officer, Paul Cheesbrough, in place as of September, there may be more seeds to plant even amid the scorched earth.

And no discussion of News Corp. acquisition possibilities is complete without an eye on the international front, where the conglom is heavily invested in both production and distribution.

Murdoch might want to make a run at Endemol, a massive production machine that can keep international channels well stocked. It’s not as sexy a play as landing the home of “Star Wars” — Endemol is kind of like getting socks as a gift. But, then, who doesn’t need socks?

If you’re in News Corp.’s biz development realm and still wondering what to get the mogul who has everything, there’s still plenty on the auction block.

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