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News Corp. topper turns ‘Net prophet

Murdoch: Web is bond to customers

ADELAIDE, Australia — News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch used the occasion of the 20th annual shareholders meeting his global media conglom today to talk about, of all things, the Internet.

Countering the widespread view that his company is less interested in the Internet than its rivals, he gave his first expansive address on new media strategy while stressing “the future of TV is bright” and admitting his film interests have had “a thinnish year.”

Addressing 200 or so shareholders Thursday in Australia, Murdoch said the Internet is the “glue” connecting News Corp. to its customers and proceeded to outline a three-tiered new media strategy.

The company, he explained, will continue to take strategic stakes in “innovative” new media companies, and will expand its online presence for such existing properties as the Health Network.

“I think you will see us doing some limited (number of Internet) IPOs over the next year or so,” Murdoch said.

News Corp., he added, will “aggressively establish new platforms” such as interactive TV, praising the turnaround of TV Guide as “one of the company’s most exciting investments.”

While Murdoch was relaxed and confident, cracking more jokes than usual, the AGM was overshadowed by an expansive interview he gave to his Oz newspaper The Australian in which he said his marriage to Wendi Deng makes no difference “in any way shape or form” to succession plans.

“If there’s a child, the child will have to wait until he’s 30 years old,” he told the newspaper, adding he said he plans to “stick around for a long time.”

Addressing his American businesses, Murdoch admitted, “Of course I’m disappointed in the stock price” of Fox Entertainment and said his film division, which has just been rejigged, was “having a thinnish year compared to last year, but anyone would be thinnish after a ‘Titanic’ year. We’re very confident in our slate for calendar 2000.”He said Fox TV production is having “a brilliant year, leading all Hollywood studios by 50%.” He praised the perf of his American TV stations as “extraordinarily good,” and noted that baseball meant Fox Network “started the season later than the others. We expect a good season,” he said, noting it was too early to declare a result.

As for News Corp.’s European ambitions, Murdoch said talks to take a minority stake in Kirch Group’s Premiere World digital pay TV network in Germany, may lead to an announcement soon.

“We’ll be injecting new capital in the (Kirch company) if the deal is completed next week — it’s not there yet.”

The investment would be done through British Sky Broadcasting, the U.K.-based satcaster 40% owned by News Corp. It would be a “big investment for Sky” in the order of $1 billion, he said.

Elsewhere, Murdoch said that the company expects to break even within a year” on Asian satcaster Star TV, whose revenues are up 50% after the drops caused by the region’s economic slump of the past two years.

Continuing with an unusually large number of political remarks, Murdoch said he was now “mildly optimistic” about Asia, but added, “I’ll want to see how real these reforms are in Japan.”

Murdoch and Deng are spending the week in Oz to attend the Melbourne Cup, the News Corp. shareholders meeting and opening of the Fox Studios on Sunday.

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