clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

James Murdoch Is an Old-School Media Executive, So Don't Expect Big Changes at His Dad's Empire

Keeping it all in the family.

murdoch here tumblr

James Murdoch finally won.

Rupert Murdoch, his father and everyone’s favorite media baron, agreed to hand over the CEO title at his company, 21st Century Fox, to his 42-year-old son, pending board approval. Rupert still wants James to work closely with his older brother Lachlan, according to people familiar with the matter, and while it’s very likely Lachlan will play a big part in the company, James’s resume outstrips his brother’s when it comes to the TV business. He used to run his father’s U.K. pay-TV service British Sky Broadcasting.

But forget the family intrigue for a second — this is interesting because James now runs one of the biggest TV companies in the world, currently worth $67 billion. Twenty-First Century Fox owns Fox Broadcasting, FX, Fox News and 20th Century Fox film studio, all producing tons of content that feed into Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and now Sony and Dish for their Web-TV bundle, and likely eventually Apple for its forthcoming Internet-TV service.

James is largely considered a very good operator, a classic technocrat. He works at a standing desk and rarely sits throughout the work day. He’s calm and considered and like most people of his generation is well aware of digital developments that are eating into established businesses like his own.

But don’t expect major changes at Fox. James, despite his age and perhaps because of his resume, isn’t known as a major TV disruptor. In 2009, he was one of the key executives who convinced (some say forced) then-Hulu CEO Jason Kilar to add on a paid subscription service, Hulu Plus, despite Kilar’s initial objections, according to multiple sources.

Hulu, a joint venture between Fox, NBCUniversal and Walt Disney Co., had been under pressure by its owners to change its business so that it more closely matched how the TV business already works — affiliate revenues it receives from the pay-TV guys, along with ad dollars. But the owners also imposed a windowing system on the content so it wouldn’t compete too directly with the regular broadcasts.

All of that clashed with Kilar’s original vision for Hulu, which was simply free TV on the Web a day after the original broadcast. We still don’t have that.

Hulu now seems to have some kind of momentum again with nine million paid subscribers, and while it has yet to produce an original show with any kind of buzz, it’s now getting help from its owners, who are steering their new reruns to Hulu instead of Netflix as a sort of hedge. Also interesting to note here is that AMC’s new “Walking Dead” spinoffs will go to Hulu, even though AMC had a long-running relationship with Netflix. In addition, the hit Fox show “Empire” will have its reruns on Hulu, not Netflix.

Still, Hulu has had to claw its way back to this point after seeing the rapid growth of Netflix and Amazon Prime, which are largely about library content. Plus, the lush affiliate fees that the TV companies, including Fox, get from the cable and satellite guys is contingent on people still paying for TV, and that number is dwindling.

Even the skinny Web-TV bundle that Dish sells right now shows there’s a fair number of people — about 250,000 — who’d rather pay for fewer TV channels since it’s cheaper.

James and the other major TV companies are entering a tricky time for TV as they try to find the best way to take advantage of what appears to be a new model for video content while not upsetting its current cable and satellite partners or losing too much of its profits in the process.

Sure, Netflix and Amazon are writing big checks to TV companies like Fox, but it’s also very possible that the availability of those programs on those services has cut into the TV networks’ ratings. See Viacom’s Nickelodeon on that one.

By choosing James, Rupert is finally rewarding him for his loyalty. James had stayed with the company, and, at least among the Murdochs, took the brunt of the blame for the hacking scandal that erupted at the company’s U.K. newspapers in 2011, which, in some ways, led to the splinter of Murdoch’s media empire in 2013.

Whether that loyalty amounts to a clever vision for the future of Fox (and of TV) is still unclear.

This article originally appeared on