Murdoch catches rising Star

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has taken a giant leap into Asia by agreeing to pay $ 525 million for a 63.6% stake in the Hong Kong-based satellite TV venture Star TV.

The move represents the most significant investment by a Westerner so far in the burgeoning Pacific Rim entertainment business.

News Corp. adroitly snatched the deal from under the nose of British media group Pearson, which was also negotiating with Star’s owners, the powerful Li family and their company, Hutchison Whampoa.

Sources said Pearson was still pitching as late as Monday. Murdoch himself apparently negotiated directly with Li Ka-shing beginning July 13 and sealed thedeal last Thursday, a source said.

Murdoch’s people were jubilant at their coup. One senior exec hailed it as “the inauguration of the global village.”

“With Murdoch’s interests in Europe, the United States and now Asia, he’s setting up the complete global empire,” said the News Corp. source.

As well as owning Fox Inc., News Corp. holds 50% of the dominant British satcaster BSkyB, whose Sky News and Sky Sports channels are expected to benefit from the link-up with Star TV. Ironically, Pearson is one of BSkyB’s minority shareholders.

The Star TV deal comes just a couple of weeks after News Corp.’s bid to acquire 22% of Hong Kong terrestrial web Television Broadcasts (TVB) was blocked by the local authorities because it contravened media ownership rules.

The agreement gives Star’s owners a handsome return on their original investment of $ 320 million three years ago. Murdoch will pay half the purchase price in cash and the other half in News Corp. ordinary stock.

Star TV, which is run on a shoestring, is said to be losing a modest $ 20 million to $ 30 million a year.

The Li family retains a substantial share of Star TV and remains in control of one vital link in the complicated chain of companies thatmakes up the venture — the subsidiary that holds the satellite broadcasting license from the Hong Kong government.

News Corp. has acquired a 63.6% of Hutchvision Ltd. (known as BVI), the holding company that owns and operates Star TV, along with the program rights acquisition arm Media Assets.

Star TV in turn owns 48% of Hutchvision Hong Kong Ltd., the licensee responsible for the satellite uplink in the colony. The remaining stakes in both companies are still owned by the Li family and Hutchison Whampoa, in accordance with regulations preventing non-Hong Kong residents from holding a majority stake in a local satellite broadcaster.

In early trading this morning, the Hong Kong stock exchange greeted news of Murdoch’s acquisiton enthusiastically. Hutchison surged 60 cents to $ HK20.50

In New York, News Corp. closed Monday up 7/8 at 45 1/4.

At the moment, the Star TV service comprises six channels, broadcast in the clear via Asiasat to 13 million homes across 38 countries. The package includes Prime Sports, programmed under contract with Denver-based Prime Network; BBC World Service TV and MTV, along with a Mandarin-language channel, the Star Plus entertainment channel and a Hindi-language service targeted at India.

Under the News Corp. deal, the Media Assets library will be augmented by Fox television programming. It’s unclear how program suppliers like the BBC and Prime Network will be affected by the Murdoch investment, since BSkyB has its own fledgling news and sports channels.

Crunch time

But the crunch time for Star TV comes in the next six months, when it is due to launch a number of pay TV channels. Along with 11 transponders on Asiasat 1, it has options on a further eight on Asiasat 2 and reportedly has reserved 20 more on another satellite.

Star is trying to negotiate program-supply deals with the Hollywood studios and other major international suppliers. The studios reportedly are being offered 20% stakes in the pay channels that would carry their movies. News Corp. exex believe that the majors, who had been delaying any licensing deals with Star, will now be eager to climb aboard.

However, Star TV may face competition from a powerful grouping of American, Australian and Asian programmers who are banding together to form a rival satellite TV package. This group, transmitted via Palapa but soon to switch to the more powerful Apstar, includes HBO, ESPN, CNN, Australian pubcaster ABC and Hong Kong’s TVB.

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