The stakes have risen since Murdoch’s last battle for Sky

21st Century Fox’s bid for pay-TV company is response to an even bigger rival takeover

 

Reports of Rupert Murdoch’s ongoing mission to get his hands on Sky might well confuse casual observers who were under the impression the Australian media mogul already owned the company.

In fact, Murdoch’s US-based media and entertainment behemoth 21st Century Fox, which he effectively controls, owns only 39 per cent of Sky, the European satellite broadcaster and pay-TV company. For some years now, he’s been in the mood to buy the rest of it.

Ever since the Sky television channel first started broadcasting in the 1980s, Murdoch has been synonymous with the brand.

Irish Cablelink customers, who were bestowed with Sky (alongside the separately owned Super Channel) in 1987 at no extra cost, may remember that the nascent channel mainly showed music programmes stuffed with mullet haircuts, interspersed with repeats of 1960s fantasy comedy I Dream of Jeannie. Who knew from such things empires could thrive?

Enter Bart Simpson on his skateboard. The Simpsons, a product of the Murdoch-owned US television baby network Fox, shown here on Sky, became the big Sunday teatime event, and pretty soon Murdoch was using Sky’s transatlantic relationship with Fox to redraw both the cultural landscape and media industry norms.

In the 1980s, industry consolidation had barely got going. Sky was yet to discover football. But the UK parliament was already hearing concerns about the concentration of media power in Murdoch’s hands. By the end of the decade, the British Labour party had called on the UK’s monopolies commission to investigate his interests in Britain, including the question of whether Murdoch-owned newspaper titles were giving Sky an unfair advantage by providing extensive free publicity.

A year later, Sky merged with rival British Satellite Broadcasting and became BSkyB, a company untroubled by the protestations of Labour.

Almost 30 years on, the news is repeating itself, only this time Murdoch (86) is richer and the companies involved are much bigger.

British media secretary Karen Bradley has confirmed she will refer the planned £11.7 billion (€13.48 billion) takeover of Sky by Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox to Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog. (Bradley and the Conservative government will have the final decision.)

Record of criminality

Among those who pushed for the Ofcom referral was former Labour leader Ed Miliband, the man the Sun once shamed in a front-page splash for eating a bacon sandwich the wrong way.

Miliband has been busy reminding anyone who cares about “a record of criminality” at Murdoch newspapers and “the untramelled power” already held by his empire. It was the 2011 News of the World phone hacking scandal, after all, that did for Murdoch’s previous bid for full control of Sky.

The corporate battleships have moved about since then. In 2013, News Corporation split into two companies: the US film and television business 21st Century Fox, which includes the Hollywood movie studio 20th Century Fox, and the publishing arm, which includes News Corp UK and Ireland, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

News Corp has extended its presence in Ireland, too, adding a local digital edition of the Times to sit alongside its Sunday Times publishing business, and buying Storyful, the social media news agency founded by Mark Little.

Somewhat curiously, Murdoch has also ended up the ultimate owner of the second most-listened to radio station in Dublin, FM104, which is one of seven Irish radio stations News Corp inherited when it bought TalkSport owner Wireless Group.

Sky, which employs 850 people here and controls more than 20 per cent of the television advertising market, has also evolved.

In 2014, after the acquisition of Sky Italia and a majority holding in Sky Deutschland, it stopped being BSkyB and reverted to the name Sky, reflecting its new structure as a pan-European business operating in Britain, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy.

This is not the only reason Sky is worth fighting for again. For New York-based 21st Century Fox, the price is handily cheaper thanks to the Brexit-related fall in sterling.

The stakes of the game have also soared. Murdoch’s latest designs on Sky are not simply the resumption of his thwarted earlier bid, but a response to a fresh burst of consolidation in the industry that has seen US telecoms giant AT&T swoop on Time Warner for an eye-watering price tag of $85 billion. Three years ago, 21st Century Fox made its own play for Time Warner, the owner of HBO, but was rebuffed, in a rare defeat for Murdoch.

Now both the AT&T/Time Warner and 21st Century Fox/Sky deals are set to spend the bulk of 2017 trying to clear the competition hurdles on either side of the Atlantic. In the capricious political climate, it is not entirely certain that either will get to the finishing line.

But who would bet against it?

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