Murdoch closes in on deal for US Bible-thumper's family channel

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The Independent Online
Tireless in his pursuit of access to the American front room, Rupert Murdoch was said yesterday to be closing in on a deal to buy 40 per cent of International Family Entertainment (IFE), owner of the Family Channel cable company.

The deal, if consummated, would give Mr Murdoch's News Corp another vital beachhead in the US television industry. Last month, he shocked entertainment insiders by signing a joint venture deal with the nascent but fast-growing cable broadcaster, EchoStar.

His latest investment, which could cost News Corp $600m (pounds 369m), will be important primarily for the opportunities it will give Mr Murdoch to showcase the children's programming of his Fox Television Network.

IFE is controlled by Pat Robertson, the super-powerful religious broadcaster who has in the past also run on a conservative ticket for the US presidency. Previous suitors have baulked at a final deal because of the Family Channel's commitment to religious programming. Its flagship religious programme, which airs in prime time in the US, is The 700 Club, hosted by Mr Robertson.

But the tabloid USA Today reported yesterday that Mr Murdoch would agree to allow the show to retain its slot on the channel. During the morning and afternoon hours, however, its programming would be given over to the output of his Fox Kids service.

A deal with IFE could give Mr Murdoch a cable base that could give him equal standing with the two other main children's cable enterprises in the US, the Cartoon Network, owned by Time Warner, and Viacom's successful Nickelodeon.

The Family Channel is "one of the few remaining independent cable networks with almost universal distribution", Frederick Moran of Furman Selz, told USA Today. "It's a gem of an asset."

Most appealing for Mr Murdoch is the considerable audience reach already enjoyed by Family. According to latest cable industry figures, it penetrates 59 million homes in the US, compared with 66.8 million for Nickelodeon and a much smaller 28.3 million for the Cartoon Network.

Any deal with IFE would reveal a twin-track bet by Mr Murdoch on both cable and satellite broadcasting in the US. It would be a strategy designed to guarantee him the broadest possible access to viewers regardless of whether his hopes for satellite TV take off or not.

Analysts predicted, however, that news of Mr Murdoch's approach to IFE would prompt other broadcast players to try to block him.