Murdoch pushes `grand strategy'. Purchase of TV Guide expands his global media influence

In the movies, Australia's Crocodile Dundee uses quick wits and survival skills to win his way in America - and so, in real life, has news-media magnate Rupert Murdoch. But if the fictional Mr. Dundee used his personal charm to some effect, Mr. Murdoch has used sheer economic might and aggressive acquisition to make himself a major publishing force in the United States and the world.

On Sunday, Mr. Murdoch and publisher Walter Annenberg announced an agreement for Murdoch's News Corporation Ltd. to purchase Mr. Annenberg's Triangle Publications Inc., a privately held company that publishes TV Guide, Seventeen magazine, and the Daily Racing Form for $3 billion.

The Australia-based News Corporation is a multibillion-dollar global behemoth with 150 newspapers and magazines, book publishers, television stations, and a satellite cable channel.

Now comes TV Guide, the nation's largest weekly magazine, selling more than 17 million copies, and Seventeen, a monthly fashion magazine for young women, with a circulation of about 1.8 million.

``The purchase of TV Guide is part of Murdoch's grand strategy,'' says Matti Prima, a managing director of Henry Ansbacher Inc., a New York investment-banking company that specializes in media companies.

In this light, even the huge purchase price, by far the most ever paid in a publishing takeover, may make sense, analysts say. Indeed, they believe Murdoch views the TV Guide purchase as only a small piece in a much larger puzzle.

``His grand strategy is to own as many quality media properties around the world as he possibly can,'' says Barry Kaplan, a media-company analyst with Goldman, Sachs & Co., a New York investment banking firm. ``It's a simple plan, there's nothing complicated about it.''

Although his strategy may be simple, execution of the plan certainly is not. Murdoch's effort to turn the New York Post into a moneymaker by transforming it into a racy British-style tabloid with screaming headlines and lurid photography failed. It was sold in February.

About the same time, Murdoch was forced into a battle with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts over Federal Communications Commission regulations that prohibit cross-ownership of a television station and newspaper by the same owner in the same city. Murdoch won a partial victory in Boston, retaining his television station and the Boston Herald newspaper by putting management control of the TV station in a trust.

In 1985, Murdoch applied for US citizenship in order to meet FCC standards to be eligible to buy seven US television stations for more than $2 billion.

Though the TV stations individually are profitable, the broadcasting network that supplies programming lost $80 million in fiscal 1987. But such losses have not kept Murdoch's empire as a whole from being profitable, nor have they kept him from going deeply into debt to attain his vision of a global media company.

News Corporation's debt is currently about $4.2 billion, according to Richard MacDonald, a media analyst with the First Boston Corporation, a New York brokerage. Heavy as the debt load is, Murdoch will borrow from banks another $1.4 to $1.6 billion to finance the TV Guide purchase. He must also come up with $600 million in other financing and sell about $1 billion in assets, Mr. MacDonald says.

The tremendous cash flow from Murdoch's empire allows him assume this kind of debt. His properties will generate an estimated $1.2 billion in cash in 1988, more than enough for him to make his annual debt payments (about $600 million currently) and buy more properties.

The addition of the two magazines makes News Corporation the largest US publisher of consumer magazines, in terms of circulation. The company also publishes Star (a supermarket tabloid), New York Magazine, New Woman, Premiere, Automobile, In Fashion, and European Travel and Life, and has a half interest in the US edition of Elle, a fashion magazine.

In London, Murdoch owns the Times (London) and the Sunday Times; in Australia, he owns newspapers in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide; in Hong Kong, it's the South China Morning Post.

Recently, Murdoch paid $600 million to acquire a 20 percent share of the Pearson Group, a British company that publishes the Financial Times and has half interest in The Economist magazine. He has also acquired nearly 14 percent of Reuters, the British wire service.

All of this, analysts say, means Murdoch may someday piece together the various elements of his publishing empire in Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, and the US. But the move is troubling to some consumer groups.

``He's acquiring a larger and larger ability to shape and influence public policy,'' says David Wagenhauser, a staff attorney with Telecommunications Research Action Center. ``One of the best ways to influence public opinion without holding a political office is to control the media - and from past experience it does seem that Mr. Murdoch wants to influence public opinion.''

The purchase of TV Guide ``is part of Murdoch's grand strategy,'' says Mr. Prima at Henry Ansbacher. `My guess is that Murdoch will use TV Guide to make the Fox Broadcasting system more visible. All he has to do is put it on the cover.''

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