Murdoch parts with the Power Rangers and the preacher man

The sale of Fox Family and the end of the mogul's dream of owning a kids' TV channel
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The Independent Online

It was one of the most unlikely couples you could have expected to see, at least in the corporate world. The courting of Pat Robertson, the controversial Christian TV preacher, by Rupert Murdoch, the media baron well-known for topless models in his newspapers and a wide range of tabloid television fare, was bizarre in the extreme.

Four years ago the preacher sold his company, International Family Entertainment, to Mr Murdoch for $1.9bn (£1.3bn), who then merged it with his children's TV division to form Fox Family Worldwide. Now, the alliance is at an end. After the $5.3bn sale of Fox Family Worldwide to rival Disney last week, Mr Robertson has been cleansed of Mr Murdoch's spirit.

The deal was a coup for the media baron, who had been faced with paying out as much as $2bn to Haim Saban, the Egyptian-born Israeli who heads up Saban Entertainment, to buy out his 49.5 per cent stake in Fox Family. At a difficult time for media companies, with a fall in advertising revenue, the pay-out threatened to reduce the company's debt rating to junk-bond status.

Mr Murdoch had more good news last week when the Federal Communications Commission ruled that his News Corporation could complete the acquisition of 10 TV stations. The American regulator could have ruled that the sale breached US cross-media ownership rules.

But with the sale of Fox Family comes the end of one of Mr Murdoch's dreams: to own a successful US children's channel that could rival the market leaders, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

It had all started so well. Fox Family originated from two companies: Saban Entertainment and News Corporation's Fox Kids. In the first half of the 1990s, Fox Kids, which then broadcast just 19 hours a week on US television, had a huge success with the television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The programme featured five teenage kids who gained magic powers when they put on spandex suits. It had been produced by Saban Entertainment, after Mr Saban had persuaded Fox to broadcast it in 1993 following rejections from other networks.

Fox's move paid off. The series was a phenomenal success around the world, and made Mr Saban's name in the industry, as well as putting Fox Kids on the map.

The combination was so successful that Saban Entertainment merged with Fox Kids in 1995 to form a new company, Fox Kids Worldwide. The brand was expanded in Latin America and Europe. The merger was also part of Mr Murdoch's master plan to own a kids' television channel in the US.

It was then that Pat Robertson's role became crucial. At the time, Mr Robertson's company, International Family Entertainment, was looking for a cash injection. Its main business was the Family Channel, a whiter-than-white entertainment station which also featured Mr Robertson as preacher, and the Christian TV show, The 700 Club. However, the search for an investor had its problems.

"It was an almost impossible task ... Robertson insisted that at the end of the day he had to retain control of the company. That way, he could ensure that the new management would not drop The 700 Club," said journalist Neil Chenoweth in his book Virtual Murdoch.

When Mr Murdoch came to the table to discuss a merger, he was therefore in a strong position. He proposed that he use the Family Channel to broadcast his Fox Kids content in the daytime, and family entertainment in the evening.

The sale would have made his dream a reality. He sealed the deal in 1997 with the assurance that the Christian shows would stay, which helped him beat other interested media companies, thought to include Disney. Fox Family Worldwide was born.

The coupling raised eyebrows in the US. Fox Kids had been known for high-action, sometimes violent, shows such as Power Rangers, which didn't seem to fit with the Family Channel's wholesome offerings, particularly the religious broadcasts. And Mr Murdoch had previously been targeted by Christian groups when they called for a boycott of advertisers on one of his raunchier offerings, the TV sitcom Married ... with children. In the end, the mixture of cultures caused problems for Mr Murdoch.

"We expect the future combination of high-quality programming from the Fox Kids Network, and The Family Channel will create a new force in worldwide family entertainment," Mr Murdoch had said at the time. Yet after the company relaunched as Fox Family Channel in August 1998, viewing figures plummeted. The following year they were down 28 per cent – and they fell further a year later. The channel's spokesperson said this was due to a switch from viewers of pensionable age to a more youthful audience, but the extent of the fall surprised the industry. Although audience figures have improved since then, they are still significantly lower than in the pre-Murdoch era. In this light, the Disney deal looks a good one for Mr Murdoch, as he is taking away $1.5bn from the venture.

The question mark is over the future of the Family Channel. Disney, with such a strong brand in children's and family entertainment, could be the force to turn the channel around. It already owns the Disney Channel and Toon Disney, and has umpteen well-loved characters in its library, like the Lion King. It has been criticised for not moving as fast as rival media giants, such as AOL Time Warner, so the deal will help its corporate image.

But what about Mr Robertson? Disney has said that the Christian broadcasts will probably stay. Fortunately for his fans in America's Bible Belt, it looks like his controversial view of the world will still have a mouthpiece.