Let’s be clear. The Murdoch equation has changed utterly as Rupert and sons bail out of Hollywood, movies, archives, Star of India and Sky. That empire will belong to Disney now. And what the family has left is much smaller: Fox News, some US sports and business channels, some TV stations. Not a shrimp beside Disney’s whale, but just one more middling flatfish in the seas of the Blue Planet.
That doesn’t mean penury, of course. Fox’s cable interests made more than $16bn last year. The sale to Disney – a complexity of share dealing – hits $66bn. But it is retreat, not advance. It is also a tad more fragile than it appears.
Fox News may be cock of the cable-news walk, but (shades of Alabama) its narrow ploughing of an extreme rightwing audience – as that audience, average age more than 70, dies – is vulnerable to the changing winds of political fashion. Sports cable is under pressure as the price of the events meets consumer resistance. Television stations without their own tame Hollywood content factory aren’t exactly the future of mass entertainment.
Meanwhile, the disentangling of News Corp from 21st Century Fox – a penalty of public disgust about phone hacking – is over, to be followed, surely, by a re-tangling of the Wall Street Journal, London Times et al in a new “news oriented” Fox. Since Mr M has been complaining lately that most of his papers are struggling to make money, that doesn’t seem like prime profit-centre stuff – especially since News Corp’s overall digital performance appears a little below par, uncertain where and when to build paywalls.
There’s a profound change of direction here, then. What son James does best has been sold off – with James looking for work elsewhere. Son Lachlan, by default, is the inheritor. Dad has more money than he knows what to do with, but the edge of his appetite has gone. In UK terms, his three remaining papers sit alongside the Mails and the Telegraphs in the clout premiership. His Sun is a sore problem. The Guardian and Observer stand taller on the worldwide web.
When and if Disney decides that Sky News chips away at Sky profits for no good entertainment reason (the very reverse of Murdoch policy), there will no doubt be wails of parliamentary anguish. Seldom have so many competition regulators toiled to no purpose. Seldom have Murdoch’s printed papers and websites faced a more testing decade.
What do you do with untold billions in this residual neck of the Fox woods? Rupert , post-Disney, has the cash. But does he have the ideas, or the hunger? Fox News can feed the Wall Street Journal for years, and succour other papers from Sydney to the Shard. Yet there needs to be a vision in play.
The old Rupert (only two months back) was always striking out in search of that vision, buying, experimenting, throwing away. This old, old Rupert seems content to try to shape what he has left. Time to stop quaking. This is wholly new territory.