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