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Rich Ross joins Liz Murdoch’s realm

Shine's latest high-profile hire underscores its autonomy at News Corp.

The appointment of former Disney Studios topper Rich Ross as Shine America CEO is the latest high-wattage hire by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group.

The growth of Shine America and its offshoots during the past two years has reinforced the assertions of autonomy that Elisabeth Murdoch and her father have made ever since News Corp. purchased Shine Group for $663 million in early 2011. The publicly-stated strategy has been

that Shine would remain entirely separate from other News Corp.

TV and film operations, giving it the best-of-both-worlds ability to draw on News Corp.’s deep pockets but the opportunistic nimbleness of an indie outfit, albeit a sizable one.

Observers have questioned the efficiency of having Shine operate as a sovereign state within the News Corp. empire, which has fueled speculation that Shine is a short-term part of the long-term answer to the generational succession issue that looms for the conglom that Rupert Murdoch built and controls as majority stakeholder. (At present Elisabeth Murdoch reports to News Corp. prexy Chase Carey.)

Within News Corp., there is no doubt that Shine is being built up for the long haul. Ross will assume his Shine America CEO post in January with a mandate to expand its scripted programming business. His hire comes a few months after Shine recruited NBCUniversal exec Vivi Zigler to run Shine America’s 360 and Digital unit devoted to branded entertainment, ancillary products, live events and digital ventures. Moreover, Shine America has brought in nearly a half-dozen mid-level creative and business-oriented execs in the past year.

As Shine America CEO, Ross will succeed Oz native Carl Fennessy, who plans to return to Australia to resume his role as joint-CEO of Shine Australia by the middle of next year.

Ross and Elisabeth Murdoch go back nearly 20 years when both were working on the launch of FX at News Corp., and the two have stayed friends over the years.

“I have known and admired Rich for many years,” Murdoch said in announcing the appointment. “He is a world-class executive and the ideal leader to build on our extraordinary momentum at Shine America.”

Fennessy’s plan had always been to return to Oz after he finished a reorg of Shine’s U.S. operations, which included the blending of Shine’s operations with Reveille.

Ross’ immediate focus will be working with Carolyn Bernstein, Shine America’s exec veep of scripted programming, in growing scripted TV development, with particular emphasis on developing properties derived from formats controlled by Shine’s global affiliates. The company already has a high-profile drama pilot in the works at FX, “The Bridge,” based on a Shine format that has been a hit in Scandinavia.

Shine already has a solid footprint in the U.S. TV market with unscripted series, including Fox’s “MasterChef,” NBC’s “Biggest Loser” and numerous cable series.

For Ross, the appeal of returning to the exec ranks at Shine is rooted in the company’s global approach to content creation. After a rocky 2½-year tenure as head of Disney’s film operations, Ross took the summer off to consider his next move. Murdoch reached out to him about joining Shine shortly after he left the Mouse House, and the discussions became serious during the past six weeks.

“I knew I wanted to work at a company that cares about the content it creates,” Ross told Variety. “I knew there was a unique opportunity to make great scripted content and reality content and have it go all over the world. Everybody’s talking about doing a global business model but only Liz and Shine have really put it together.”

Move to Shine returns Ross to his TV roots, though the company does have film development activity underway in the U.S. and other markets.

After being part of the FX launch team from 1993-96, Ross joined Disney Channels Worldwide as prexy and helped steer the cable group’s remarkable rise with original skeins and telepic franchises. In October 2009, he was tapped by Disney CEO Robert Iger to run the Mouse’s film division,

By many accounts, the segue to film was a rough one for Ross, who had the tough assignment of being a film biz outsider tasked with implementing major structural changes at the film studio right off the bat. By March, when Disney warned investors of a pending $200 million writedown on “John Carter,” Ross’ days on the Burbank lot were numbered.

“The journey of figuring out what’s next after you’ve worked for one company for a long time is definitely a process,” Ross said. “But Shine just semed to be a custom-fit for me. I feel like they are one step ahead of everyone else in being a global business. And to have the chance to work with someone I have so much respect for was too good to pass up.”

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