The Rare Breed

With Rupert Murdoch making a play for Dow Jones just as Chuck Dolan was poised to take Cablevision private in a $10.6 billion deal, some of you must have waxed nostalgic for the days when the media landscape was dominated by wildcatters and buccaneers.

The septuagenarian Murdoch, who built his media empire out of one troubled Australian newspaper he inherited, and the octogenarian Dolan, founder of HBO and a true father of the cable industry, are part of a vanishing breed: the firebrands who once dominated the media and entertainment business. Of course, there’s Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, with enough control of his kingdom to command his lieutenants to make a little mischief, and Liberty’s John Malone, with DirecTV in his grasp, looking for some game-changer strategy.

But in the main, the industry is now controlled by a different breed: risk-adverse, buttoned-up players interested in making growth a game of inches rather than one governed by a constant belief in one’s ability to convert a Hail Mary. Certainly, there’s competent management. But among today’s major media players, I don’t see a Murdoch, Malone or Ted Turner 3.0. Do you?

If Central Casting looked to fill that role, it would veer away from New York and Hollywood and head straight to Sunnyside and the Googleplex, where Larry Page and Sergey Brin reside, plotting some fresh assault on the traditional-media turf.

A couple of years back, Dolan was making an attempt to save his ill-fated DBS gambit Voom from being sold off, after a majority of the Cablevision board, including his son and Cablevision CEO Jimmy Dolan, turned against a venture that was bleeding millions. Back then, Malone, himself a member of the Cablevision board, summed up the elder Dolan’s dilemma in our pages: “The problem is, he’s a public company, and, to play the cards as hard as Chuck plays the cards, you have to be private.”

Given Dolan’s predilection for high-stakes poker, a privately held Cablevision will soon be wheeling and dealing.

With a News Corp. board long in lockstep with his leadership, Murdoch has incredible leeway to nimbly make a swashbuckler gambit, such as the $5 billion Dow Jones bid that would give him that crown jewel of journalism—The Wall Street Journal. If successful, the acquisition would fuel his global media efforts, extending his broadband push to the soon-to-launch Fox financial network. First, of course, he must convince the 40 or so disparate members of the Dow Jones-controlling Bancroft family that he will not only line their respective pockets with treasures but preserve the company’s legacy of quality.

Defining “quality” is a relative thing. At a financial conference last February, Murdoch was asked about making the Journal, et al, a part of the News Corp. empire. While first feigning that he “was cooling” to such a play, he then offered insight as to how he’d change the franchise. The Web, he sniffed, has “taken the urgency and excitement” out of “normal Journal stories.” He was bored with the paper’s news features and such, stories he admitted he seldom read.

But Murdoch sees opportunity in a direct assault on The New York Times’ national edition with “much more significant world and national” coverage. An interesting idea, and no doubt one of a host of shifts Murdoch would put into play if given the ammunition. My educated guess is, he’d use the Journal to push his political and financial agendas, too.

After all, isn’t that what buccaneers and wildcatters do?

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