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Playing Mogul Murder

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There is no company that is as much a reflection of one man’s vision as News Corp. To the degree that media consolidation has worked, many people might argue that it has worked best at News Corp.—and they would say, too, that the reason it has worked is Rupert.

He’s the Tito of the media business.

It is virtually impossible to get people at News Corp. to speculate about or follow the logic of a future without Murdoch. Life after Rupert—soon to be 72—may be the most existential proposition in business today.

It is certainly reasonable to believe that with Murdoch still safely in place, a whole new dimension of consolidation is in store for his company. DirecTV seems inevitably to belong to Murdoch, and in the end will surely be seen as a brilliant Murdoch play (walking out of his negotiations with General Motors precisely because he knew GM would do a deal with a company that could not complete a deal, meaning Murdoch would get the company little more than a year later at a fraction of the price). And what else might Murdoch, in a distressed market, have a go at? What—or how much—will he want of a disaggregating AOL Time Warner, Vivendi, and Disney? (At the very least, why shouldn’t Fox devour ABC News instead of CNN?)

But what would happen without Rupert? His son Lachlan is faithfully by his side and is, one would suppose, getting a thrilling education. And there are numerous loyal executives who would step into the breach. And yet, after Rupert, is it even necessary to argue that News Corp. will be a more realistic, less adventurous, even gentler place?

And then there are Mel and Sumner.

Which one will the bus hit first? Or, more to the point, who will be driving the bus?

The contract of Viacom’s COO, Mel Karmazin, is up for renewal this spring. Will Viacom’s CEO, Sumner Redstone, the nation’s oldest mogul, off his successor or keep him? (Or will it be Mel’s move: He decides he’s had enough of this already and goes off on his own to pick at a collapsing AOL TW, Vivendi, Disney, and even, post-Sumner, a parceled-out Viacom?) Without Karmazin, Viacom would be run by one or more of a group that includes Tom Freston from MTV and Jon Dolgen at Paramount and Les Moonves at CBS. Now, these men are much-vaunted career executives—and who does not think a career executive would be more modest in his appetites and ambitions than a born-and-bred mogul? It will be such a slower, safer, duller sort of game.

And then there’s the 60-year-old Diller, whom I find I am reluctant to kill off. I just can’t forgo the spectacle of watching whatever it is he will do (if he does get control of Vivendi Universal, I’m betting he reverse-merges into Disney—or there is a plan, vague to me in its outlines, but startling in its foresight, wherein Diller, seeing the future through Match.com, his dating service, grabs everything that’s left of the Internet).

This is the problem with my dead-mogul analysis. We know that the media world teeters near collapse and will inevitably be divided and administered by more modest men.

And yet, for better or worse, so many of us have this helpless mogul worship.

I have seen Michael Powell, the chairman of the FCC, who is meant to restrain these men and their companies, laughing dreamily and schmoozing delightedly in the presence of moguls. He can’t escape his awe. You bend to the larger power, the bigger ego.

It is hard to escape the thrall. It is hard to believe that all of this—big companies as well as big men—will pass. That this generation is done. (Once, when asked about Murdoch’s brush with prostate cancer, Barry Diller described the extraordinary steps—stake through the heart, deep-excavation burial, concrete reinforcement—it would take to kill him and keep him dead.) Especially because this generation is so much larger, meaner, more heroic than the one coming next—which will be dealing with all the problems caused by large, mean, heroic fathers.

Still, the last deal, for which the FCC is now clearing the way, is probably not yet done.

“Anyone,” said 79-year-old Sumner Redstone to 80-year-old Don Hewitt as they left a recent CBS gathering, “who thinks age is chronological is an asshole.”


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