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Australian Exec Faces Heady Task at JV

Sydney, Australia-Not many in the Asian pay TV industry were envious of Tom Mockridge last month when he was appointed CEO of a multimedia joint venture between Hong Kong telco Cable & Wireless HKT Ltd. and pan-Asian pay TV platform Star TV.

Mockridge faces a mountain of challenges that could undermine even the most determined executive, according to some industry observers.

For starters, the Hong Kong-based joint venture hasn't even received the required nod from government authorities.

And there's also the trick of juggling the needs of two often-disparate shareholders: HKT's incoming owner, Pacific Century CyberWorks, led by chief executive Richard Li; and News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose company is Star TV's main shareholder.

If that weren't enough, Mockridge, an Australian native, will ride a growth curve as he drives a multimedia entity into markets that are new to him.

There are also some industry expectations that he may very well be in line for the top job at Star TV, one of the most ambitious programming and direct-to-home companies across the entire region.

The six-month-old, as-yet-unnamed joint venture has a noble mission: to provide Hong Kong and other Asian markets with digital satellite-delivered programming, along with HKT's broadband-interactive services and Internet access.

But its partners don't always see eye-to-eye, and the relationship could become ever more strained. According to recent reports, News Corp. may team up with Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel) to trump PCC's bid for HKT.

Mockridge cut his teeth for News Corp. in Australia while at 600,000-subscriber MSO Foxtel.

Though he's tight-lipped about the challenges ahead, many who have worked with him Down Under said his background-along with a previous political stint as a policy advisor to former Prime Minister Paul Keating-makes him an ideal candidate for the job.

"Mockridge will be the glue that binds the partnership together. He trod the high wire at Foxtel," said one Australian executive now working in Singapore for a News Corp. competitor.

The tightrope act at Foxtel, where Mockridge worked for three years, involved balancing the demands of three very different shareholders-Australia's two most powerful media entities, News Ltd. and Kerry Packer-owned Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd., as well as majority shareholder and telco giant Telstra Corp. Ltd.

Certainly, PCC has reason to make the venture work. "Li couldn't execute what he plans to do without a key content partner, and Star and News Corp. are among the best content aggregators in the business. And Mockridge knows his content," the Singapore-based source said.

Indeed, if he proves himself at the joint venture, those in the know see Mockridge as the next CEO of Star TV, News Corp.'s loss-leader. Industry observers said the only thing standing between Mockridge and the top job at Star TV is what happens to current acting CEO Bruce Churchill.

After five years of racking up several hundred million dollars of debt, News Corp. said it expects Star to move into the black in the next 12 months.

Mockridge himself would appear to be keen to dive into an area that may soon turn a profit. At a recent industry conference here-at which Fox Sports chairman and News Corp. colleague David Hill was the keynote speaker-Mockridge quipped that for three years, he'd been presenting to Murdoch at the annual News Corp. executive gabfests, showing rivers of red ink disappearing from Foxtel's balance sheet.

He has said he envied Hill's ability to stand before Murdoch at the same gatherings and calmly tell tales about his division's conquests in the sports-television arena, knowing that Murdoch was happy with Fox Sports' performance.

Hong Kong may provide Mockridge with the opportunity to crow, but he apparently hasn't had much direct experience bundling and selling multiple products and services to customers, sources said.

He viewed Foxtel as a pure television play. But during three years at the helm there, he closely watched his main rival, Optus Communications, bundle pay TV, Internet and broadband services, as well as local and long-distance telephony, for its customers. And that is quite similar to the package that's expected to emerge from the HKT-Star joint venture.

While Mockridge kept his eye solely on the TV ball at Foxtel, he also spearheaded some healthy changes, overseeing an aggressive marketing strategy, the addition of direct-to-home services to its cable-delivery systems and negotiations with Hollywood studios that saw them cut inflated movie prices by around 20 percent.

Mockridge also proved himself as an adept talent spotter, signing tennis ace Pat Rafter to a Fox Sports worldwide-sponsorship deal just as Rafter was hitting his peak form and luring the world's wealthiest radio host, John Laws, back in front of the television cameras.

As was true at Foxtel, "It's not just a matter of throwing the switch" at the joint venture, according to one source, but of meeting the political and business challenges head-on in order to get its products to market.