It’s a truism that leaders mellow out as they grow older, unless, that is, they happen to be Rupert Murdoch.
In the past several weeks, the 81-year-old patriarch has rearranged the balance of power both in his TV and film empires by installing his son, James, atop his TV pyramid and firing Tom Rothman as co-chief of 20th Century Fox.
Further, having split off his newspaper holdings, Murdoch watchers say he’s now prepared to mount a full-fledged effort to buy the Los Angeles Times. This power grab would not only make him the undisputed king of the newspaper business but also extend his ideological clout to California, which he believes to be leaning ominously to the left.
Rupert may be getting old, but his quest to achieve political power through economic power remains undimmed.
In his effort to acquire the Times, of course, Murdoch would have to thread his way through bankruptcy hearings, appease bankers like JP Morgan and other random note holders and overcome cross-ownership regulations. But then few believed he could insinuate himself into the family-controlled Wall St. Journal. He has made the Journal an excellent newspaper, though its editorial policy is to the right of Genghis Khan.
To be sure, the dramatic changes within Murdoch’s media empire come at a moment when the entire industry landscape is undergoing transformation. Appointment of a new CEO at Universal is anticipated, Disney has brought in Alan Horn to run its ailing film division, Philippe Dauman is rebuilding his infrastructure at Viacom to deal with revenue decline and there’s widespread expectation that the Japanese will sell their Sony entertainment assets within the next two years.
Given the turbulence, Time Warner has emerged as the symbol of calm under the cautious leadership of Jeff Bewkes and its share price is up well over 30% this year. Indeed, journalists covering Time Warner habitually complain about the absence of news — acquisitions, intrigues or other corporate debacles. Executive transitions are seamless — witness Richard Plepler’s appointment as the new CEO of HBO — and major appointments are made in such a leisurely way that no one notices when they finally happen.
Bewkes’ policy of orderly, organic growth is a marked contrast to the deal-making frenzy of a Murdoch or even of a Gerald Levin, the Bewkes predecessor who acquired AOL and Turner. The only move Bewkes seems impatient about is to vacate the imperial Time Warner building on Columbus Circle and transfer corporate activities, now spread over town, to a new headquarters.
Some Time Warner executives have been impatient with Bewkes’ methodical process. A top executive at Warner Bros, should have been named by now, they argue — a couple of newspapers have announced the rumored new boss (Bruce Rosenblum) only to be contradicted by Bewkes’ press spokesman. Similarly, some argue that a reorganization of CNN is long overdue, while Bewkes is taking his time. A couple of years ago Bewkes announced a new boss at Time Inc., only to reverse himself six months later to bring in a replacement.
The polar-opposite styles and philosophies of Bewkes and Murdoch increasingly are reflected in corporate policy. As he gets older Murdoch’s fortunes seem caught up in his erratic political missions and family intrigues. On Bewkes’ side, few know his politics or have ever met his family. Murdoch’s personal encounters with outsiders seem increasingly edgy, if not harsh. Bewkes is at once genial and cerebral; he covets mindgames, not wargames. Like feudal lords of the past, Murdoch’s metabolism seems to mandate cosmic conquests. Bewkes instinctively resists melodrama; he wants to nurture his corporate family and his corporate assets.
Time will tell which program survives in a time of tumult.