Many of the major assets of the global media business are in play at the moment, but guess who’s hunkered down on the sidelines? Rupert Murdoch, that’s who.
While fellow moguls study the numbers and sweat out the deals, Murdoch seems secure in the knowledge that his vast fiefdom is in excellent shape — perhaps at its all-time healthiest.
Hence Rupert the Rapacious has been magically transformed into Murdoch the Mellow, a 71-year-old seer who wants to nurture his existing holdings rather than annex new ones.
Close associates still have to cope with Murdoch’s instinctual appetite, as they’ve done through the decades, but their job has become easier.
One reason is that News Corp. still has to digest Direct TV plus retool two satcasters in Italy, among other ventures.
But part of it, too, rests with the fact that their leader, who once saw himself as a sort of Aussie marauder, now seems comfortable as a corporate statesman — one who intends to stay around for a long while.
“I’ve never felt better in my life,” he told me in New York last week. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
While the subject of succession is irrelevant as far as he’s concerned, Murdoch is effusive in his respect for the management skills of his second-in-command, Peter Chernin, and leaves no doubt that he intends to extend his contract, which expires in a little over a year.
Murdoch also expresses admiration for his two sons, Lachlan and James, who, in his view, have mastered difficult business obstacles over the past two years.
Though ebullient about the performance of key divisions, Murdoch still acknowledges traces of corporate paranoia.
“Whenever things are going well, you can count on something coming along to mess it up,” he says as his famously furrowed brow adds some new furrows. “A measure of paranoia is very healthy.”
He is delighted with the performance of his TV businesses, including the broadcast network, TV stations and studio, but uneasy about the long-term impact of TiVo and similar technologies. He’s also irked by what he sees as the ignorance of public officials in the U.S. and Australia who want to limit cross-ownership and fight media concentration. And he’s persuaded that Congress doesn’t understand the threat of piracy in TV or film.
Murdoch professes enthusiasm for the movie business, contrary to the speculation of analysts, though he’s fearful of ever-rising marketing costs. He especially admires the performance of the Fox Searchlight division for proving that there are profits in films that don’t set out to be blockbusters.
“I especially distrust big-budget sequels,” he warns. “I don’t understand those in the industry who feel that sequels are a safe bet.”
The fate of Paramount’s “Lara Croft,” he feels, reflects their vulnerability.
Murdoch is prone to taking global leaps when discussing his businesses, catapulting from Italy to India to the U.K. during the course of a single complex sentence. He can be at once upbeat about China, yet apprehensive about ever again dabbling in Germany.
Even his office reflects this absence of geographic specificity. Its style is ’80s contemporary, with spare chrome chairs and white sofas. Six blinking TV screens dominate one wall and neat stacks of magazines and newspapers adorn the shelves. It’s mostly Murdoch product, to be sure — outside distractions rarely penetrate his sanctum sanctorum.
Similarly, while a huge glass wall dominates one side of his office, giving the impression of openness, no random passers-by have access to the corridor bordering it. Only his attorney or top financial guru can wander by.
Critics suggest that Murdoch’s ideology reflects similar insularity.
In the past Rupert has described himself to me as a “classic liberal,” which translates into a sort of corporatist libertarianism. In his mind, Fox News represents a model of objectivity, leaning neither left nor right. The reason it’s beating the hell out of CNN, he feels, is simply because it’s sharper and livelier.
Yet while many of his media outlets may sound ideologically belligerent, Rupert’s personal style has become more moderate. He talks more slowly, marshalling his thoughts carefully before articulating them. All this may be misleading, however, for the basic attitude permeating his vast company is one of entrepreneurial boldness. The individuals who run his TV and movie companies are risk-takers, not bureaucrats. They innovate, rather than sequelize. They’re given more latitude to run their businesses — within reason, that is.
For they know Rupert is out there somewhere, peering at the numbers. He may not be bidding on new acquisitions, but he’s still keeping score.
And everyone knows that, now and forever, he’s a tough scorekeeper.