Rupert Murdoch is cashing out. The idea of 21st Century Fox being consumed by Disney in a $52.4 billion all-stock deal has shocked Hollywood, where industry players never thought they’d see the powerful Fox behemoth be largely consumed, rather than do the consuming. But as one insider noted, Murdoch is looking toward his final legacy — and turning in his chips while the getting’s good.
“Rupert is 86. He’s looking toward setting up [his family],” one observer said. The industry is rapidly changing, and as the Disney deal currently values the 21st Century Fox assets at more than $66 billion, it’s probably never going to get better than that. Fox shareholders, including the Murdochs, could hold around 25 percent of a new mega-Disney, which will now be supremely positioned to face off with Netflix and other giants in the new media landscape.
The Murdochs got their start in the newspaper business, so it’s only fitting that even without 21st Century Fox, the family will still have a media presence — and a major impact on American society — with its reworked News Corp., consisting of Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal, Fox Sports, and local TV news operations in the nation’s largest markets. They won’t have “The Simpsons” anymore, but they’ll always have The Trumps.
What ultimately happens to the Fox Broadcasting Company? Where do Peter Rice, Dana Walden, and Gary Newman end up?
The remaining Murdoch company includes Fox Broadcasting, the Fox TV Stations, Fox Sports, Fox News, and the Fox lot in Century City (perhaps re-merged with the Murdoch media properties owned at News Corp., including the Wall Street Journal). That’s a dramatically downsized company, on par with station groups like Tribune Media, Sinclair, and others.
If Fox survives, it’s not because the network itself is profitable, or that it really needs to exist on its own. Without 20th Century Fox TV, Fox is no longer a money maker. But the Fox Television Stations, which are still profitable, need something to air in primetime, so a bare-bones Fox network would likely continue.
“It’s impossible for me to imagine the Fox Broadcasting Company continuing on,” one executive familiar with the company told IndieWire last month. “Maybe they have to continue going until they sell the stations. There’s no long-term prospect for broadcasting. It’s going to come down to whether or not there’s value in maintaining the stations than selling them.”
At first, viewers might not notice a difference, as shows that are already on the air continue — plus NFL football on Sundays. But over time, as existing fare goes away, it’s expected to be replaced by low-budget news and reality programming. Another possibility: Studios or producers looking for distribution might lease time slots or entire nights from Fox in order to air their programming. (Sony, for example, might have good reason to place a few fully owned shows on Fox Lite, and use its syndication arm to sell advertising during those time slots.)
A Fox Lite would likely act similar to other broadcast programmers like Ion and Fox’s My Network TV (which airs on Fox’s former UPN affiliates), both of which air mostly syndicated repeats, plus occasional acquired originals — mostly from Canada. Fox News and Fox Sports would round out the schedule. Viewership may plummet, and expect some Fox affiliates to balk and drop out of the reinvented network — while others, with no other options, are forced to carry Fox 2.0 and suffer lower ratings.
As for the staff, it’s unclear how many people would be necessary to run a bare-bones Fox, but if the focus is on acquisitions, then a programming team would be unnecessary. Where Fox Television Group chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman land is unclear: Do they follow the studio to Disney and find new roles there? Are they left behind at the network, where their oversight is marginalized? Or do the duo end their nearly 20-year partnership and move on to other gigs in the industry?
Walden has strong relationships with some of the key producers moving over to Disney, including Murphy, and is one of the most powerful and senior-level female executives in television — all of which would seem to make her pretty valuable to Disney as it figures out its new structure. But Walden would likely require a senior role reporting directly to Disney CEO Bob Iger, and Ben Sherwood is president of Disney/ABC Television — overseeing ABC, ABC Studios, Disney Channel, Freeform and other entities. Where Walden might land, and how Disney might restructure its TV properties, remains to be seen.
Then there’s 21st Century Fox president and Fox Networks Group chairman Peter Rice, whose experience in television and film make him a likely asset for Disney — potentially even a candidate (if not James Murdoch) to replace Bob Iger as CEO. “We’ll be discussing whether there’s a role [for Murdoch] at this company,” Iger said on “Good Morning America.”
How is 20th Century Fox TV incorporated into ABC Studios, or do they remain separate?
Prior to working at ABC Studios, president Patrick Moran was senior vice president of drama development at 20th Century Fox TV (where he developed shows such as “Glee” and “Prison Break”), so he’s familiar with that studio and its culture. With some shows, there’s already a natural fit: 20th produces family comedies “Modern Family,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” and “Speechless” (a co-production with ABC Studios) for ABC.
The Fox network was borne out of a changing regulatory climate that allowed networks to own more of their in-house programming. But as ABC, NBC, and CBS turned its attention toward its sister studios, the relationship between Fox and 20th Century Fox TV remained strained — until Walden and Newman received network oversight in 2014. Since then, 20th continued to produce for outside networks (including NBC’s “This Is Us”), but as those networks went mostly inhouse, 20th focused more attention on Fox. This season, all six of 20th Century Fox TV’s new series (“911,” “Ghosted,” “The Gifted,” “LA To Vegas,” “The Orville” and “The Resident”) are being produced for Fox, and all of ABC Studios’ new shows were for ABC.
At some point, it doesn’t make sense to have a separate 20th Century Fox TV, if its main goal — producing for Fox — is no longer there. Creative affairs president Jonnie Davis could potentially take a job inside Disney or move on.
Outside the broadcasters, 20th Century Fox TV produces a wide variety of shows for cable (particularly through its Fox 21 label) and streaming. That includes “Arrested Development” (Netflix), “Homeland” (Showtime), “The Americans” (FX), “Mayans MC” (FX), “Genius” (National Geographic), “American Dad” (TBS), “Queen of the South” (USA), “The Chi” (Showtime) and Ryan Murphy’s FX anthologies “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” and “Feud.”
That’s a lot of content, and perhaps Fox 21 (run by Bert Salke) merges with ABC Studios’ cable label, ABC Signature, to combine their production output for basic and premium cable, plus streaming.
It’s also still unclear what happens to syndication arm Twentieth Television (and president Greg Meidel), which is no longer a part of the Fox Television Stations group. Twentieth now mostly handles off-net sales of 20th Century Fox TV programming, as well as ad sales for shows from a handful of other companies, including Debmar-Mercury (“Wendy Williams”). As the syndication marketplace has dried up, both Twentieth and Disney-ABC Domestic Television (“Live with Kelly and Ryan,” “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”) have seen their first-run output decline, and could easily be combined into one entity.