James Murdoch is poised to become the pre-eminent mogul of his generation when his dad, Rupert, hands him the CEO title at Fox. That change at the TV and film giant is expected to take place soon, perhaps to coincide with the change in the company’s fiscal year at the end of this month. And it could be important — though the changes at the company probably will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
There won’t be a radical change in direction because “at the end of the day, Rupert will still be the Executive Chairman and calling the shots,” says RBC Capital Markets’ David Bank. Nobody knows just yet how much latitude to run day-to-day affairs the 84-year-old paterfamilias will give his son, who’s half his age.
Still, James’ ascendancy — with co-COO Chase Carey stepping aside to become an adviser — changes the skill set at the top. Carey was a product of the pay TV era and ran DirecTV before taking the No. 2 job at Fox’s predecessor, News Corp. That experience helped him negotiate carriage deals with cable and satellite companies. That was a critical skill for a company that counts on its cable channels to generate about half of its revenues, with broadcast TV accounting for another 18%.
“That’s where Chase crushed it,” Bank says.
But James is stronger in two areas likely to be more important for Fox’s future: He’s one of the most experienced execs at a major media company in making global distribution deals, having run Fox’s Star Asia and the company’s former BSkyB operations.
James also is keyed in to digital media, including ad technology. He championed Fox’s $200 million acquisition late last year of online interactive ad company True X. At their recent upfront presentations, Fox network execs talked up True X‘s capabilities to help advertisers target their messages to particular buyers — not just to demos and time slots.
That could shape James’ strategies as CEO. “Obviously he’ll want to make his mark on the company,” says S&P Capital IQ analyst Tuna Amobi. The new CEO will be “a little more adventurous in M&A,” picking up firms with interesting international and digital assets.
James has to be careful, though. Many investors still have bitter memories of his father’s lust for empire building –including his $5 billion acquisition of Dow Jones in 2007. Their opposition helped to crater his plan last year to pay $80 billion for Time Warner.
With Rupert still around, you can’t rule out the possibility that Fox will try to bag another elephant. MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson, for one, would like to see Fox head in a different direction by selling its Sky holdings and using the cash to buy back stock. That would “unlock long-term under-appreciated value and finish the transformation of [Fox] from media conglomerate to pure-play video content company.”
James also has to overcome the view that he’s simply a winner of the lucky sperm club — that he landed the top job just because he was born a Murdoch, not due to his talents. Although he’s “willing to give James the benefit of the doubt that he can be a competent CEO until proven otherwise,” Cowen and Co. analyst Doug Creutz says that “the fact that the company remains a family-run business remains a significant obstacle to our willingness to become more constructive on shares.”
Many believe that Fox will help James to look like a winner by setting a low bar for him to jump. The company could do that by cutting its cash flow guidance for the fiscal year that begins in July. It’s now “in the mid-$7 billion range,” Creutz says.
In any case, few are betting against the incoming CEO. He impressed investors as smart, cool-headed and forward-looking during the past two years as he campaigned to win their support. Most needed to be assured that he could handle the job after the UK News of the World hacking scandal. He ran News International, the print business there, and struck many as inattentive to the crimes taking place at his companies — and possibly too eager to cover things up.
Fox could benefit from a new generation of leaders who are attuned to the profound changes taking place in media and the break-neck speed of the industry’s transformation. Rupert seems to agree. But titles don’t mean much. We’ll have to see whether, after years of amassing power, he’s really ready to let go.