Euro high-rollers set to join Murdoch’s new global effort

After three years manacled to his debt and under the watchful eyes of banks, Rupert Murdoch seems to have broken free to roam the world doing what he loves best — making deals.

But although Murdoch alluded to his newest ventures in a Sept. 1 speech to kick off his all-pay U.K. TV service, details of his ambitious global plan remained vague. Daily Variety has learned that the latest project is the creation of a group to develop a common digital satellite TV system for Europe, Asia and the Americas.

And two of Europe’s most powerful media companies, the Kirch Group of Germany and Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest, are poised to throw their weight behind the group, according to Gus Fischer, chief operating officer of News Corp. in London.

The shape of the digital future is now likely to be formed by transnational partnerships among competing programmers — with News Corp. setting an aggressive pace. While the company must continue whittling away at its sizable debt load — some $ 7.5 billion as of June 30, 1992 — Murdoch has clearly turned his attention back to global empire building.

In an exclusive interview with Daily Variety, Fischer filled in many of the details that Murdoch skirted over during his London speech.

The consortium for digital TV currently includes News Corp., British research and transmission company NTL and U.S. technology firm Comstream. With newcomers Kirch and Berlusconi on board, fully digitalized TV, with a tenfold increase in channel capacity, could be available on a worldwide basis by 1995, Fischer says.

A previous agreement between News Corp. and French pay-TV giant Canal Plus to collaborate on digital broadcasting technology has collapsed. The reason, the News Corp. exec said, was that Murdoch wanted to involve other partners, whereas Canal Plus wanted to exclude them.

Nonetheless, Fischer has invited Canal Plus to join the new group in an effort to avoid a potentially ruinous battle between competing standards.

In his Sept. 1 speech, Murdoch made his first public comment on News Corp.’s recent $ 525 million acquisition of a 64% stake in Star TV, the Pan-Asian satellite broadcaster, saying the deal had “changed the landscape for this company’s broadcasting strategy.”

Fischer said Star is acutely aware of the political sensitivities across its vast footprint, which covers two-thirds of the world’s population, many of them living under non-democratic regimes, and would be working closely with local governmentsto avoid problems.

“We will have to have a Star China, a Star India and so on,” predicted Fischer. “We won’t be able to have programming across the board for all the countries. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have joint ventures with governments for news programs in China, India, Malaysia or wherever.”

Fischer emphasized particularly the delicate situation in China, whose 1 billion people still live under Communist rule. He pointed out that BBC World Service TV, which Star carries as its 24-hour news channel, gets cut out when Star’s signals are fed into local Chinese cable systems.

Nonetheless, Fischer insisted that Star will balance political caution with independence.

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