Mathew Horsman on the media

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The Independent Online
The Broadcasting Bill, now making its tortuous way through the Lords, was conceived with one chief aim: to encourage the growth of Little Murdochs.

How? By engendering well-capitalised companies with global aspirations, allowing them to sprawl across the once heavily guarded borders separating TV, newspapers and radio.

So what are we to make of the first fruit of this brave new legislation, the marriage of Lord Hollick's MAI and the United News & Media empire run by Lord Stevens of Ludgate?

Little Murdochs they ain't. Rupert Murdoch's fortune is derived from the clever use of his dominant position in newspapers, his risky willingness to bet the farm every seven or so years on "the big idea". That and and a legendary understanding of what drives consumer media - whether it is bare breasts on page 3, wall-to-wall sport on Sky Television or, most recently, a crusade against liberalism in the US, via his launch of a 24-hour news service aimed at breaking the control of the "liberal elite" on American television journalism.

Moreover, he has the money to do it all. His News Corporation offered pounds 1.2bn (with partners) in a failed bid for European broadcasting rights to the Olympics. His 40 per cent owned BSkyB has paid pounds 300m for rights to Premier League football, and will probably offer more than pounds 500m to renew the TV contract next year (unless the Restrictive Practices Court, which is reviewing the agreement, unexpectedly overturns it). News Corporation owns publishing companies, the 20th Century Fox film studio, a US cable network, a US terrestrial TV network (Fox), scores of US and UK newspapers and even an Internet services company.

Even if you just count the UK interests (and I wouldn't, as it is precisely the global nature of his businesses that gives Murdoch his clout), the empire is huge, taking in the Sun, the News of the World, the Times, the Sunday Times and 40 per cent of BSkyB, itself worth about pounds 6.5bn.

What are MAI and United News next to that? Not much. The new combine brings together two regional ITV companies (Anglia and Meridian), three struggling national newspapers (the Daily Express, the Sunday Express and the Daily Star), regional newspapers, magazines and MAI's money-broking operations. No film studio, no pay-TV network, no book publishing.

Oh, well. You have to start somewhere. So can this merger be a step towards creating a truly global, UK-based media kingdom, able, eventually, to vie with Murdoch and the other world-league media barons?

The answer depends on your perspective - long or short term. Initially, Lords Hollick and Stevens will not have accomplished much even if they do manage to make it to the altar. (Rumours abound of a spoiling bid from Michael Green's Carlton Communications). Despite much talk about "synergy" between newspapers and television, there is really very little scope to leverage investments in both industries into sharply higher profits.

What the two men have gained is some breathing space from potentially hostile bidders. They also get a bit more critical mass to contemplate bigger acquisitions of their own.

Size does count. Alone, Lord Hollick might have found it difficult to come up with the funds to buy Yorkshire-Tyne Tees, the ITV franchise he has long coveted. Now, the acquisition looks far easier to contemplate. Lord Stevens, for his part, gets the chance to complete his relaunch of the Express titles, secure that he has a competent, well-financed partner.

In the long term there may be some merit in merging the two groups. Ultimately, we are going to see a huge transformation in the way entertainment and information are delivered to us. It is clear that media are converging, as the traditional barriers between telecoms and broadcasting, between "content" and "carriage", break down. We may be able to access video, sound and text on a single screen, choosing from a wealth of options. Companies able to supply packaged information efficiently - and profitably - will be the big winners.

Murdoch already has the pieces in place. No British company is there yet, even if there are wise players who have elected to concentrate on niches within the marketplace.

Lord Hollick intends to be among the winners. He speaks intelligently about his long-term strategy, offering the prospect of themed entertainment channels for subscription television, or packaged financial services information developed by MAI's money-broking arm. At first, however, the "synergy" looks far more modest. He wants to see MAI's TV interests, for example, heavily promoted in the Express titles.

On balance, the MAI/United News deal, the first ever involving a national newspaper publisher and an ITV company, isn't all that convincing. Are there any better candidates for Britain's "national champion"?

The smart money only sees two serious contenders in Britain - and both are far from perfectly placed. Pearson, the media and publishing conglomerate, is viewed as too diverse and too complacent. But its media investments of recent years do reveal an impressive, comprehensive strategy of buying up programming rights and production companies, on the quite sensible assumption that "content" will always be required, whatever the method of delivery - cable, satellite, telephone lines or even wireless.

The other candidate for Little Murdoch fame is Michael Green's Carlton, the pounds 2.4bn television and video production company. Indeed, most media analysts would have been much happier to see Green bid for MAI than for the proposed MAI/United News merger to go through. In some circles, Green is thought to be too conservative and lacking in truly global vision. Has he got what it takes? Has anyone got what it takes to be a Big Murdoch rather than a Little Murdoch?

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