Everything’s up in the air - especially Sky News
The problem, grim warnings aside, isn’t whether Rupert Murdoch will pull the plug on Sky News if his plan to buy the whole satellite shooting match is thwarted. The problem is whether he’ll still want to own 39% of Sky – and whether whoever picks up the pieces will want to preserve a loss-making news channel.
We learned last week that 21st Century Fox has had so far abortive talks with the much mightier Disney corporation, which wants to buy its movie business, its TV and film studios, plus an assortment of satellite enterprises, possibly including Sky.
So Murdoch may no longer be the buyer; he may be a seller retreating into a cable news and sport bunker.
Beware too many leaps of the imagination here. Perhaps there’s a rift in the family, with young James out of favour; perhaps this is prudent succession planning; perhaps there are more surprises in store. But even a glance at Fox’s latest quarterly results (ending 30 September) make an indicative case. Film takings obviously go up and down: one huge hit can transform a balance sheet. But there are no transformations so far this year on the Hollywood beat – nor any sign of burgeoning life on conventional TV as advertising slumps and the might of Netflix, Amazon and Google comes rolling in. Content is king in this new streaming world. Put Disney and 21st Century Fox together and they have well over a quarter of the Tinseltown content market. You can see why Disney is interested. “Its pursuit of 21st Century Fox Inc’s entertainment assets indicates that repositioning its television business to compete in the streaming, a-la-carte world Netflix dominates has become Disney’s top priority,” said Rupert’s own Wall Street Journal. It’s not so certain though, unless the stalled talks resume, who else would be truly interested in pick-and-mix bidding for Murdoch assets. Nor is the future of the hived-off print news company very clear unless it contrives a surge in digital reach and revenues. Everything’s up in the air; everything’s to play for. You can be a giant operation spread far and wide – and also too relatively small to cope.
And where is Sky News in the scheme of such things? It’s a prospective pawn for sacrifice as necessary, a good deed that can be wiped away if the stakes are high enough. The whole Murdoch saga, in sum, is moving on fast. His familiar chorus of critics would be shrewd to move likewise.
Fox production Murder on the Orient Express, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, may not be enough to keep Rupert Murdoch on top.