Many accounts of the changing of the guard at 21st Century Fox naturally will focus on the question of whether the sons can live up to the ways of their swashbuckling father, Rupert Murdoch. But early analysis suggests Wall Street is mostly untroubled by the long-awaited decision by Murdoch to step aside from leading the entertainment conglomerate that has long seemed something like an extension of the titan’s ego.
The company’s stock was up 20 cents from the day’s start, in after-hours trading, following news that the 84-year-old CEO would move for James and Lachlan Murdoch to take over management at 21st Century Fox. A vote by the company board on the new hierarchy is expected next week.
Analysts ranged from sanguine to approving of the likely impact on the owner of a film studio and worldwide TV and digital assets.
Jessica Reif Cohen of Bank of America Merrill Lynch called the succession plan “moderately positive” for shareholders, because it reduce any remaining uncertainty about future leadership. While others fretted about a familial, rather than purely meritocratic, transition, Reif Cohen gave a long list of James Murdoch’s qualifications.
She praised him, in particular, for his leadership of European television giant BSkyB. “Not only did the company successfully transition its business model from a dominant video provider to a broadband and voice provider, it also returned a significant amount of capital via dividends and buybacks,” said Reif Cohen and the research team at B of A.
Longtime entertainment and media watcher Hal Vogel also saw the Murdoch sons as poised to lead. “He’s very smart about grooming his heirs to take this over in the right way,” said Vogel. “Until recently, they weren’t ready. They’ve been in the hotseat. It’s time. They’ve had the glare of a little bit of scandal. They’ve been seasoned and matured.”
Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co. said he would give the “benefit of the doubt” to the idea that James Murdoch would be a competent CEO. His only hesitation in recommending an even more positive view of Fox, Creutz suggested, was that the company remained family-run, rather than choosing its leaders from a broader talent pool.
Some suggested that the brothers’ intimate knowledge of the company could be a plus. “They’ve been brought up and trained and have the founder’s line of vision,” said Vogel, “and they know the company very well . You’d have to go looking for an outsider with the same knowledge and that’s hard to find. You might not get better management.”
Still, Creutz disagreed with those who have said the elder Murdoch’s record would be hard to match. “We have always viewed Rupert as an empire builder who is more concerned with accumulating assets than with delivering shareholder returns,” Creutz wrote, adding that this shortcoming was “highlighted most recently by the aborted attempt to take over Time Warner.”
Creutz also tweaked the elder Murdoch for “several ethical lapses that wound up being quite expensive for shareholders, most notably the hacking scandal.” He said James Murdoch was also tainted in the scandal over reporters at Murdoch’s News of the World using purloined phone call and text information to write stories.
James Murdoch, Creutz noted, “was chairman of News International during a time when the company, and he personally, denied that the hacking was anything more than the activities of a single rogue reporter. This obviously turned out not to be the case, though it remains unclear what James’ actual knowledge of the situation was.”
Vogel said the imminent passing of Rupert Murdoch from the top job at Fox deserved a moment of reflection, despite any shortcomings.
“He’ll be seen as one of the major figures of the 20th century,” said Vogel. “He shaped the landscape. He was very visionary, forming the fourth network, going after the Fox studio. He saw the value of cable networks. And went full steam ahead.”
(Pictured: James Murdoch)