Inducting Rupert Murdoch into the Television Academy Hall of Fame on March 11 sounds like a no-brainer. Few have done more in the past 30 years to reshape the TV business, from the launch of the Fox broadcasting network to the fledgling outfit’s poaching of rights to the NFL (and temporarily the Emmys) to introducing Fox News Channel.
On closer inspection, though, Murdoch’s legacy is more complicated than that, inviting questions about what a Hall of Fame is intended to do. Because while News Corp.’s contributions have been significant under Rupe’s stewardship, they have also done much to divide the public — and frequently led TV down a path of dubious standards and questionable taste.
It’s worth noting that Halls of Fame in the world of sports, which provide the most obvious and familiar example of such honors, generally look harshly at those perceived to have sullied an otherwise exemplary career on the field.
Pete Rose, the all-time leader in hits, remains an outsider at Major League Baseball’s HOF because he bet on games. A similar debate has raged over the induction of steroid users, whose exploits might have been artificially inflated through chemical means.
In some respects Murdoch’s approach to programming and deal-making has at times felt like TV on steroids, exemplifying a win-at-all-costs attitude, throwing on provocative concepts and sorting out the damage later. For every “The Simpsons,” “24” or “American Idol,” there’s been a “How to Marry a Multimillionaire,” “Temptation Island” or “When Animals Attack,” which at the time prompted then-NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer to deride such fare as being “one step short of a snuff film.”
There’s no arguing that Fox has “revolutionized the television landscape with groundbreaking shows,” as the TV academy states. Yet one can make a case the network’s signature series broke less ground, and did less to change and define the medium, than did its programs that not only lowered the bar but coarsened the national debate, while exalting notoriety every bit as much as fame.
Admittedly, the TV industry would have reached these extremes eventually — Paddy Chayefsky’s jaw-dropping prescience in penning “Network” predicted a lot of it — but Fox clearly led the race toward the bottom on several fronts, almost gleefully pursuing button-pushing boundaries that execs knew would garner attention by setting off alarms regarding the direction in which television was headed.
Setting aside politics, Fox News has also been an especially divisive force. Conservative defenders will say the network represents a corrective tonic to a liberally skewed media, but the wider impact of Fox has been to help stratify news into cocooned-off echo chambers, fostering an entrenched us-vs.-them mentality that has essentially paralyzed the body politic. Moreover, as commentators such as David Frum have noted, measuring Fox News’ effect on the recent presidential election, the self-serving nature of the network and its need to reach a relatively small audience insures that Fox News thrives even if its success comes at the expense of its ideological allies.
Murdoch’s use of his various assets to buttress each other and advance his corporate TV and publishing interests has been well documented. Indeed, if concerns about the dangers and abuses of media consolidation have at times felt overstated, Rupe’s behavior has gone a long way toward stoking and validating those fears.
Finally, there’s the phone-hacking scandal that has plagued Murdoch’s newspapers and eventually prompted him to shut down one of his U.K. tabloids, the News of the World. That action followed a period of stonewalling and denials, and has clouded the mogul’s larger legacy, leaving behind lingering questions about the company’s buccaneering culture.
If the goal is strictly to recognize influence, Murdoch sails into TV’s Hall of Fame on the first ballot. But unlike his fellow inductees, his is a thornier history.
Held in the balance, Murdoch probably deserves the accolade. His footprint is simply too overwhelming to ignore.
But like more than one Hall of Famer in the modern era, it’s an entry that warrants at least an asterisk.