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James Murdoch: Ready for the throne?


When James Murdoch dropped out of Harvard University in 1995 to form an independent music label, Rawkus Records, he might not have seemed like the most likely candidate to one day take over News Corp., the global media business that his father, Rupert, has built up from its roots as an Australian newspaper publisher.

But his appointment Friday to a new job as chief executive of News Corp.'s international business, as part of a broad executive reshuffle prompted by the company's acquisition of Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, confirms James Murdoch's role as heir apparent.

Anyone expecting a carbon copy of Rupert Murdoch may be disappointed. But in his current job as chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting, the satellite television company, James Murdoch has shown enough of his father's media mettle to persuade analysts that he is up for a bigger job.

"There were initial reservations about James, but he has certainly won people over," said Paul Richards, an analyst at Numis Securities in London. "Some big media companies are so slow to change. What's remarkable about Sky is that they are so fast, and so willing to take a risk."

Indeed, when Murdoch arrived in London, some investors complained that he would not have gotten the job without the family connections. He was only 30 years old, and his principal executive experience was three years at the helm of Star, News Corp.'s Asian television business. Sky, meanwhile, was overly reliant on one business, pay-TV, whose growth was slowing.

Now analysts praise Murdoch for turning Sky into a broad-based communications provider, offering everything from video to broadband to telephony.

Murdoch's experience in Britain, where the embrace of digital media technologies by consumers is among the highest in the world, could help him deal with challenges elsewhere in the News Corp. empire, these analysts say.

Along with its ownership of the Fox television network, the 20th Century Fox movie studio and The New York Post in the United States, News Corp. has a powerful position in Britain. It is the largest shareholder in British Sky Broadcasting, and owns The Times and two lusty tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World.

Outside the English-speaking countries, though, it is spread more thinly.

"In the U.K., everyone assumes that Rupert's a monopolist" and that his position is equally strong elsewhere, said a former News Corp. executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But globally, there are probably things that he needs to do pretty quickly to keep News Corp. a strong business in 20 years' time."

Appointing a trusted lieutenant, his son, will allow Rupert Murdoch to devote more attention to The Wall Street Journal. In the short term, there will be holes to fill at News International, the newspaper business, which is based in London, after the departures of its chairman, Les Hinton, and of Robert Thomson, editor of The Times, for posts at Dow Jones.

Other News Corp. international businesses, meanwhile, have not kept pace with British Sky in making strides into the digital future, analysts say; Sky Italia, for instance, has four million pay-TV customers, but has not made a big push into new businesses like broadband.

News Corp.'s business in Eastern Europe, while fast-growing, consists mostly of outdoor advertising facilities and broadcast television channels, in countries like Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Georgia and Turkey; while Star has a presence in more than 50 countries in Asia and the Middle East, it is also primarily a television channel business.

Meanwhile, new media powers like Google are spreading their influence across the world, and homegrown rivals are arising in many developing markets. And other U.S.-based media conglomerates, like NBC Universal, Time Warner, Viacom and Disney, are busy talking up their prospects for international growth.

Aside from having the right last name, James Murdoch may be well-placed to take up the challenge, analysts say. News Corp. insiders say he was quick to recognize the importance of digital media and that his lobbying may have influenced his father's seemingly damascene conversion to the Internet in 2005, when News Corp. acquired MySpace, the social networking service, for $580 million.

When James Murdoch took over Sky, he focused initially on improving customer service, and that has paid off, as Sky has added 1.7 million pay-TV subscribers, lifting the total to 8.7 million. But he has also pushed Sky beyond pay television, investing heavily in new media, including a broadband business that has attracted more than one million customers in little more than a year.

Murdoch also stepped up marketing of a digital video recorder, which other television companies were loath to embrace for fear of offending advertisers; the devices allow users to skip through commercials. The Sky video recorder has attracted 2.7 million customers.

Sky has also invested in high-definition television, attracting more than 350,000 customers to 13 HDTV channels in little more than a year, at a time when high-definition broadcasts remain rare in Europe.

In addition to his focus on digital technology, James Murdoch has also gotten behind other business trends; at Sky he has pursued a "carbon neutral" policy, and associates say his commitment to the environment is real. He drives a low-emission Toyota Prius to the office, News Corp. employees say, and has another hybrid vehicle, a Lexus sport-utility vehicle, in the garage for outings with his wife and two children.

Murdoch declined to be interviewed.

In Asia, Murdoch became a black belt in karate, and rivals have sometimes seen signs of a ruthless streak. Most recently, he has been engaged in a running battle with Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur behind the Virgin Group, which has lent its name to the principal cable television company in Britain, Virgin Media. Sky's television channels have been dropped from the Virgin cable system as a result. He has also had difficult dealings with regulators, who have ended Sky's monopoly control of rights to top-flight English soccer.

Colleagues say Murdoch's attitude toward the environment shows that he has a softer side, too, and that he is hard to pin down on politics, unlike his father, who is widely known for his conservative leanings. But on other matters, like a commitment to free trade and market capitalism, James Murdoch sometimes sounds a lot like Rupert.

At a recent media conference in Monaco, James Murdoch was asked whether, in "the Murdoch universe," there was a role for publicly financed broadcasters like the BBC, which competes with Sky. "What universe is that?" Murdoch shot back, sarcastically, at the interviewer, Lionel Barber, the editor of The Financial Times. "A parallel universe of benign liberalism?"



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