Hollywood bestows a form of immortality on its marquee talent: Orson Welles’ name will live as long as best-movie lists are assembled. And when sentient space visitors arrive, their first demand will likely be to meet Lucille Ball.
For executives, establishing an enduring legacy can be more complicated. Yet few have planned ahead — in “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” fashion — with a greater sense of purpose than Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch’s recent bid for Time Warner, the latest audacious proposal in a career filled with them, underscores the News Corp. and 21st Century Fox chairman-CEO’s future-tilting ways. Loosely put, they fall into two categories: an edifice complex — that is, building something that will long survive him; and estate planning (here, extending one’s DNA through the equivalent of royal succession).
The latter is hardly unique in a business known for its nepotistic tendencies, where there are plenty of influential sons (Brian Roberts, Steve Burke, James Dolan to name a few) following in the footsteps of trailblazing fathers. (More daughters have joined the mix, a la Shari Redstone or Christie Hefner, but they remain, for now, outnumbered.)
Murdoch himself acquired his taste for media thanks to his father, though there’s scant resemblance between the modest newspaper holdings dad bequeathed him and the mega-conglomerate the 83-year-old mogul has erected to fulfill his grand objectives, which included becoming a U.S. citizen — a requirement to own the Fox TV stations, a cornerstone of his broadcast network.
In similar fashion, Murdoch has always been extremely upfront about his desire to pass the company to his children, even if their relationships with his empire have occasionally frayed (Lachlan left the company, then returned; Elisabeth went out and built her own enterprise, Shine Group, then dad bought it), and the apportionment has been convoluted. For example, Murdoch’s third wife Wendi Deng fretted about securing her young children’s claims to their fair share.
For all its Shakespearean qualities, though, Murdoch’s twin determinations — to make his company as big and powerful as possible, and to eventually pass the keys to his heirs — have potentially done his progeny no favors. Because while they would be fabulously wealthy under any circumstances, further expansion only stokes existing Wall Street concerns about Fox’s succession plans.
Indeed, in rebuffing Murdoch’s initial offer, Time Warner cited not only regulatory challenges (something Murdoch has historically thumbed his nose at) but also “questioned whether Fox’s management was up to the task of running two enormous companies,” as the Los Angeles Times put it.
Following his dogged pursuit of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, there’s scant evidence that Murdoch’s kids share his acquisitive nature. As it stands, they already have hit potholes in their ascendance through the ranks, with James, for instance, having to fend off the phone-hacking scandal that ultimately shuttered one of the company’s British tabloids.
Murdoch is rightly hailed as a media visionary, but his recent maneuvering has exposed one oversight: the names chosen when dividing the company. News Corp., which stayed with the publishing arm, has always seemed a tad small for what the enterprise had become, and frankly, Murdoch’s journalistic empire is built at least as much on opinion as news. As for 21st Century Fox, that doesn’t so much repair the outdated name as simply kick the can down the road.
In terms of a legacy that dovetails with his outlined goals, the christening solution seems obvious: Murdoch, Inc. Not only does that keep things in the family, but it stands the test of time — at least, until some bigger fish with an eye on immortality swoops in and tries to swallow it.