INTERNATIONAL: Maverick to mainstream - how Fox helped Murdoch shake up the US TV establishment - Alasdair Reid reports on another Rupert Murdoch success as Fox makes rapid progress in America

By ALASDAIR REID, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 19 December 1997 12:00AM

On this side of the Atlantic, we tend to think of London as the hub of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. And, never comfortable with the power of the Sun in making and breaking prime ministers, we still think of Murdoch primarily as a newspaper publisher - albeit with a smash-and-grab sideline in television. The ’dirty digger’ who dumbed down the Times, put nipples in the Sun and made it more difficult for us to watch football and cricket.

On this side of the Atlantic, we tend to think of London as the hub

of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. And, never comfortable with the power of the

Sun in making and breaking prime ministers, we still think of Murdoch

primarily as a newspaper publisher - albeit with a smash-and-grab

sideline in television. The ’dirty digger’ who dumbed down the Times,

put nipples in the Sun and made it more difficult for us to watch

football and cricket.



It’s not true, of course. From a global perspective, Murdoch is

primarily a film and television man. He claims he’s the biggest in the

business by virtue of the fact that, one way or another, his programming

reaches 75 per cent of the world’s population. And the centre of that

empire is the Fox group of companies in the US, including the Fox

Television Network and a number of programme production operations

clustered around the Twentieth Century Fox Hollywood film studio

powerhouse.



In the US television establishment, the Fox Television Network used to

be regarded as something of a joke. It was described rather sneeringly

as ’the fourth network’, no more than an irritation to the big three -

ABC, CBS and NBC. It was maverick and creative perhaps, with innovative

programming such as the X-Files, King of the Hill and the Simpsons

setting the pace, but definitely second division. No longer. Its reach

has grown steadily with the acquisition of more local stations. The

latest coup came in January with the purchase of the ten stations owned

by New World Television. That took the network’s coverage to 40 per cent

of the US population - and expansion is unlikely to stop there.



These days, Fox executives are not alone in talking of the Big Four US

networks and this year may go down as something of a watershed, with a

management shake-up designed to accelerate growth.



David Hill was promoted to the position of chairman and chief executive

of Fox Broadcasting, with Larry Jacobson also moving up from within the

company to become Hill’s lieutenant as president of the Fox Television

Network.



’Our first decade has seen us challenge the norms of broadcast

television at nearly every turn and now we have gained our place among

the Big Four, we are poised to demand greater success,’ Jacobson said

when taking up his appointment in September. And there is no secret

about what that greater success entails: the target is to become

America’s top network within three years. It may not take that long.

Last year, driven by strong ratings performance against younger

demographics, Fox edged CBS into fourth place in the peaktime ad revenue

table. After this autumn’s negotiations, Fox could find itself in second

place behind the market leader, NBC.



But that’s just one half of the game plan. As expected, Fox has a big

presence in cable as well as terrestrial distribution. It has nine

regional sports channels and, earlier this year, paid dollars 1.9

billion to buy the Family Channel, which it will use as a cable vehicle

for Fox Kids.



And there is also Fox News, perhaps its most ambitious project; and the

importance of what is at stake is there for all to see in Murdoch’s

recent vitriolic and very public feud with Ted Turner. If Fox News is to

succeed, it must do so at the expense of Ted Turner’s CNN. Last year,

Turner merged his interests with Time Warner, which just happens to be

one of the country’s biggest cable network owners.



No surprise, then, that the Warner cable network in New York refused to

carry Fox News when it launched last year. And if your news channel is

not seen in Manhattan and, more particularly, Wall Street and Madison

Avenue, you can forget any aspirations of becoming a major player.



As the matter went to court, things became personal. Murdoch’s New York

tabloid, the New York Post, carried a derogatory front page piece about

Turner’s wife, Jane Fonda. Turner went ballistic, calling Murdoch, among

other things, a ’scumbag’, and comparing him with Adolf Hitler. Although

the court has since ruled in Murdoch’s favour and Fox News is now on New

York cable, the feud rumbles on. Weeks ago, speaking in London, Turner

challenged Murdoch to a bout of fisticuffs. Any time, anywhere. He

wasn’t joking.



That would be the pay-per-view TV contest of the decade - but the real

corporate battle will be anything but slapstick. Murdoch has already

invested dollars 400 million in Fox News and he will have to stump up an

awful lot more before he’s finished. After all, he’s starting from

scratch while CNN has a vast worldwide resource.



And CNN isn’t his only problem. NBC, which has the world’s largest

newsgathering operation, joined forces with Microsoft last year to

launch MSNBC, a news channel that runs on cable and the Internet. It is

billed as the news service for the 21st century and is being rolled out

across the globe.



Can Murdoch take on both CNN and NBC news and hope to win? It’s

certainly one of the biggest challenges he’s set himself. But he’s used

to challenges.



The last thing his rivals should do is to talk sneeringly of Fox as ’the

third news network’.



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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