The daughter also rises: Ms Murdoch conquers America
The name is famous, the Rolodex is deep; but a woman has to make her own mark. Tim Arango reports
Monday 31 March 2008
One morning last May, Elisabeth Murdoch was leaving a Starbucks in London when her cellphone rang. Her good friend Ben Silverman was calling from Los Angeles to say he could no longer discuss selling her his independent television production company, Reveille.
"He said, 'Liz, you're going to kill me, but I can't have this conversation right now,' " Ms Murdoch recalled recently. "I've only just told my mom. But I was offered the job at NBC, it's my dream job and I have to take it."
But Ms Murdoch is very patient, as one might expect in a media entrepreneur with Murdoch for a surname. Last month, she cinched the deal to acquire Reveille for $125m (£62.6m). By combining Reveille – which has produced the hit shows Ugly Betty, The Biggest Loser and the American version of The Office – with her British company Shine, Ms Murdoch now has a foothold in the world's most important media playground and the beginnings of her own global entertainment business (the family's second).
About two-thirds of the income from Ms Murdoch's burgeoning television empire is expected to come from the US. It may also mean she could be selling shows to Fox, her father's network.
Ms Murdoch, 39, is the second daughter of Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation, and the eldest of the three children from Mr Murdoch's second marriage. It is on this set of siblings — Ms Murdoch, James, 35, and Lachlan, 36 — that speculation over who might succeed Mr Murdoch has focused.
On the morning after a long dinner to celebrate the Reveille deal at Katsuya Hollywood, the popular sushi joint designed by Philippe Starck, Ms Murdoch sat down for breakfast at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. In growing up Murdoch, she said, "Media was never a choice. You either have it in your veins or you don't. I couldn't imagine why you would want to do anything else."
So how to separate Ms Murdoch the entrepreneur from Ms Murdoch the Murdoch?
"You know, its such a hard question," she said. "Of course, it's been a huge blessing in my life. I'm incredibly privileged and I've had such opportunity. I've learned at the feet of a master."
It's worth noting that Mr Murdoch's daughter has already paid back some of that debt with one of his company's greatest recent successes – Fox's American Idol. It's one of those stories that gets told so often, and in so many iterations, that one begins to wonder if it's apocryphal.
"I don't understand how it's gotten slightly out of control," she said. "Because all I was doing was watching TV enthusiastically. I happened to call my dad in the middle of the show because I was so excited. And he said, 'Oh, I think someone's shown that to us.' I said, 'You have got to buy it.' As one does when you chat with your family, you are very direct. So I was very direct. So Dad went off and said, 'You have to buy this show.' And therein lies the luck of television."
You might expect that Ms Murdoch would speak with an Australian accent – her father does, and her brother Lachlan often slips into one – but she is by accent and manner, mostly American. Ms Murdoch, who grew up primarily in New York City, where she was educated at the Brearley School on the Upper East Side before attending Vassar College, lives in London with her husband, the prominent public relations executive Matthew Freud (great-grandson of Sigmund), and their two children. The couple cuts a glittering swathe through London's social circuit.
"There is no US equivalent to them as a power couple," said Caryn Mandabach, the producer behind the megahit The Cosby Show and a longtime friend of Ms Murdoch's. "It's actually demeaning to call them a power couple, because they are such fine individuals."
Ms Murdoch rarely gives interviews, much to the chagrin of the British press. A columnist for The Observer in London recently wrote about what a "pity" it was that she "maintains a stony silence in public" and noted that the last extensive interview she gave was to The Observer four years ago.
In 2000, Ms Murdoch left her father's business at British Sky Broadcasting, where she had been managing director of Sky Networks, to introduce Shine. Ms Murdoch, who has citizenship in both the US and Britain, now plans to spend about one week a month in Los Angeles, at Reveille's home base on the lot of Universal Studios.
Her strength, say executives who know her, is her acumen for spotting what television viewers want to watch, as well as her ability to adapt different formats to different audiences, whether they be in America, England or elsewhere. At present, for example, her company is working on creating a version of Law & Order for the British audience.
"I think she has a very strong point of view, and a very strong sense of what the public wants," said Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, an investor in Ms Murdoch's company.
Sony helped finance Ms Murdoch's acquisitions, having recently raised its stake to 20 per cent from 14 per cent. Another source of funds was a distribution from the Murdoch family trust last year, in which each of the Murdoch children received $100m (£50m) in News Corporation stock for their personal use.
That distribution was part of a resolution of a family disagreement over how much influence Mr Murdoch's two young children from his third wife, Wendi Murdoch, would have over the future of the company.
Reveille became successful by acquiring the rights to shows such as The Office, which was first a hit in Britain, and adapting them for American audiences. Ms Murdoch is currently working with ABC to bring the BBC hit Life on Mars to the US. She calls Mr Silverman's success with The Office a model for taking a foreign show and refashioning it for the American viewer, which usually means making the action faster and stressing the story.
"While the entire premise is still intact, as are formal points and even jokes and story lines, the intensity of the hooks in the series has been turned up – the claustrophobia of the office is more intense, the love affair more quickly established and the characters more intensely drawn," she said.
But television audiences do not care what your surname is, how deep your Rolodex is or the ease with which you can access capital. Ms Murdoch knew this when she introduced Shine, and it took years before she achieved any notable success.
It wasn't until 2006, about six years after Ms Murdoch left Sky, that Shine earned serious plaudits, winning an International Emmy for the drama Sugar Rush and scoring a hit in an adaptation of Project Runway called Project Catwalk, according to Broadcast magazine.
"Why I love TV, and I see it in print journalism, too, is that the audience will tell you that day whether they like what you've done," she said. "You live or die by whether or not you've got it right."
The relationship between Ms Murdoch and Mr Silverman, who is the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, goes back to the 1990s when Mr Silverman was an agent for the William Morris Agency in London.
"We always got on like a house on fire," said Ms Murdoch, who years before the show was broadcast in the United States produced The Biggest Loser in Britain for Reveille.
In fact, Mr Silverman said he never opened up bidding for Reveille to a wide group of suitors and called Ms Murdoch his "handpicked" choice. "I just wanted to go to one buyer," he said. "She's young, and that works to her advantage. She's in the demo – she can think like the audience."
Instead of just selling Reveille or Shine fare to international markets, a growing piece of the group's business is selling show formats abroad for independent producers. In this vein, Reveille has sold the format for Mark Burnett's Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? in over 60 countries, and The Moment of Truth, which is shown on Fox, in more than 40 countries.
"What she needed to pull everything together was a distribution company made up of producers selling content," said Chris Grant, president of Reveille International, who was recently in Paris pitching Shine and Reveille shows to the Luxembourg-based television company, the RTL Group. "She didn't have a company to sell her content internationally."
Her own entrepreneurial activities will always have people wondering if it's not just training to one day rejoin the family business.
Building her own company, she said, is "validating of yourself, and makes you feel like more of a full person". Her brother Lachlan, once seen as the heir apparent to their father, left the News Corporation in 2005 and is starting to dabble in media investments in Australia. Her other brother James is the only sibling still at the company – he runs Europe and Asia operations.
"Obviously, you are very conscious of people thinking, 'Oh, let's see how good she really is.' My brothers have it," she said. "I think it's one of the factors that led me to be an entrepreneur on my own because I had to do it for myself."
"Could I foresee a day going back to News Corp?" she said. "Yes, I could. Do I know how, or when, or what shape that would take? No. I don't really ever want to leave Shine. So I don't know how it would happen one day, but it's certainly not off the cards."
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