The Walt Disney Co.’s purchase of most of 21st Century Fox, announced Thursday morning, is being framed as something of a tactical retreat by Rupert Murdoch in the face of tech giants’ dominance. “Ultimately, it was the Mouse that roared,” crowed NPR.
The Australian media baron who has used newspapers and TV stations to put his reactionary stamp on American (and British, and Australian) culture was now grappling with something of a “King Lear moment,” The New York Times added.
But Murdoch’s pullback from global business ambitions still left his most potent political weapon, the immensely profitable Fox News, in his family’s control. Add in his multinational newspaper company, News Corp., plus a huge cash infusion and a relaxed U.S. regulatory climate, and the conservative billionaire and Trump confidant has plenty of ammunition to continue blasting away at American media and politics.
The $52 billion sale to Disney is indeed a reversal for Murdoch after a career of swallowing up other media companies to create a sprawling empire. It unloaded many 21st Century Fox assets, including its famed TV and film studios, allowing Disney to simultaneously cut fat and add muscle to challenge digital players like Amazon and Netflix. The deal gives Disney yet more territory in Hollywood, where just a few giant companies wield near-total power, as well as dramatically expanding its international reach.
That has troubling implications all on its own. But what about the remaining Murdoch empire? In addition to Fox News, his family will also maintain control of the Fox broadcast network, the FS1 sports network, Fox Business Channel, and its 28 local stations. That’s more than enough for Murdoch to continue doing serious damage.
These holdings don’t have scale, investors will say, but that assumes the power-obsessed Murdoch is only charting out a new business strategy. A play for political influence is more likely, and a slimmed-down company can more easily be taken private, or combined with News Corp., or both. In a call with investors Thursday, Murdoch said any consolidation of his remaining TV and newspaper properties would be “way into the future,” if ever. But he added that a different sort of expansion, specifically into local TV markets, may be in the works.
Local TV stations are being gobbled up at a furious clip, thanks to the relaxing of local ownership rules by the Trump-era Federal Communications Commission. Conservative Sinclair Broadcasting, already the largest owner of local stations in the country, is awaiting federal approval to absorb Tribune Media in a deal that would put its “must-run” right-wing segments into nearly three-fourths of American households. That’s real power in a country where local TV remains, by far, the most commonly cited source of news—and an obvious play for a billionaire media mogul intent on wielding influence. Picture Sean Hannity clips beamed into your local nightly news program, right before the 5-day forecast, so you have to watch. Or a Fox & Friends roundtable after your morning traffic report. These could be justified as efficiencies, as they say.
Then there’s Murdoch’s money-losing newspaper company, which includes The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Consolidation with other American chains could soften their collective decline while allowing Murdoch to flex his political muscles. Almost no one has a plan to profit off of newspapers—many owners are rushing to get out—making the time particularly ripe for a politically minded investor with a penchant for news, an historic willingness to lose money, and buckets of cash on hand.
Take tronc, the Chicago-based company that includes The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and, as of recently, the New York Daily News. Despite its collective firepower, the chain has no coherent strategy for long-term survival and now competes directly with Murdoch’s News Corp. in New York. Imagine conservative editorial pages, if not “fair and balanced” news reporting, dominating America’s three largest media markets.
No such deals would match the potential future return of what was 21st Century Fox. But Murdoch is a man with the ear of an easily manipulated president and billions of dollars burning a hole in his pocket. Don’t count him out just because Disney took extra baggage off his hands at a high price.