Mass Media's Mega-Man

IN the cyberworld beyond governments, run by electronic traders in finance, information, and amusements, Rupert Murdoch is the single most dominant force. He is well on his way toward forming the first truly global multimedia network.

The $4.5 million advance that his HarperCollins publishers had offered new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for two books would have been a modest expenditure for an enterprise that, in 1990, Mr. Murdoch plucked from a tidal wave of debt more than $7 billion deep.

The Gingrich book deal is still on, despite his decision to forgo the advance against sales. It represents simply another raised eyebrow in an audacious chain of Murdoch-generated astonishments in which he has bested competitors, sovereign governments, entrenched print unions, and burned-out senior executives. ``My past,'' he has told a biographer, ``consists of a series of interlocking wars.'' The booty Murdoch has collected over four decades comprises media holdings in every continent save Africa. His global political influence is profound.

The ``footprint'' of his enterprises stretches from Australia to Canada, from China and India across the United States. Within the embrace of his holding entity, the Australia-based News Corporation, is an audience of more than three-fourths of the world's population. It encompasses Star TV, supplying news, movies, and shows to all of Asia and the Middle East; BSkyB over Britain and Europe; a TV cable system spanning 80 percent of Latin America; the Fox television network; the 20th-Century Fox film studios; the FX cable network in the US; 35 percent of the newspapers in Britain, including the august Times and Sunday Times of London; and the New York Post. His TV Guide magazine has the largest circulation in the US. He's been dubbed ``the international Citizen Kane.'' A British Labour Party official complains: ``The unregulated growth of Mr. Murdoch's empire is an affront to a democratic society.''

A competitor, The New York Times, attacks as a ``serious tactical and ethical mistake'' Gingrich's book deal when Murdoch's media empire ``is vitally interested in US government policy on broadcasting legislation'' worth tens of millions to him.

One of Murdoch's ``interlocking wars'' right now involves NBC's petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It alleges that the News Corporation illegally acquired the stations that are the heart of Fox Broadcasting Company, the burgeoning ``fourth network.'' The petition specifically asserts that Murdoch concealed in 1985 the role of his Australian company in purchasing six Metromedia stations in major markets, now the core of Fox. The FCC forbids foreign ownership of more than 25 percent interest in US stations.

Sensing an early kill, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the incoming Democratic Party whip, has pointed to Republican support for proposed legislation to remove the foreign ownership ban. Advance or no, Gingrich is still in a position to further Murdoch's cause.

NBC, owned by General Electric, is no slouch in global hand-to-hand combat. It is leading the assault against Murdoch on behalf of CBS and ABC because the Fox network is literally shaking apart the domination of American broadcasting by the three traditional networks.

Against immense odds, Fox's network has sprouted into some 200 stations. It is stealing the younger audiences that advertisers crave, along with advertisers who previously patronized the ``big three.'' Fox's ratings are growing. After a shaky start, Fox scored a 30 percent rise in advertising in 1994, according to Murdoch. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales complains that to do this, Fox ``has lowered the bottom standard of program quality ... outstooping the other networks'' with ``America's Most Wanted,'' ``Beverly Hills 90210,'' ``Melrose Place,'' ``Studs,'' and the tabloid ``A Current Affair.''

Murdoch's prime weapon is risk capital. He spent $1.6 billion for Fox to acquire rights to NFL football, outbidding CBS by $400 million and ending 40 years of professional football broadcasts on CBS. In June, he touched off the largest station shakeup in TV history, acquiring a $500 million interest in New World Communications, a station ownership group, and switching the affiliation of 12 of the stations, all in major markets, to Fox. The raids have gained 68 new affiliates for Murdoch.

He is a master player at maneuvering through and around sovereign governments, including ours. By limiting Fox's programming to just under 15 hours a week, he thus escapes the FCC's legal definition of Fox as a network. In this way, Fox has evaded federal rules limiting the number of stations and programs that a network can invest in and own.

In 1993, Murdoch brought pressure to bear on the FCC to waive its ban against the cross-ownership of a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. The waiver that he won, with the backing of such substantial political figures as Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sens. Daniel Moynihan and Alfonse D'Amato of New York, allowed him to save the foundering New York Post while retaining ownership of his flagship in New York City, WNYW-TV.

Similar waivers in the 1980s allowed Murdoch to complete his purchase of the Metromedia stations. The deal was upheld in 1988, after a bitter struggle with the Democratic Congress, with the help of two Reagan-appointed judges of the Washington, D.C., federal Court of Appeals. Murdoch's influence in Washington at the time was no secret. He was a rabid advocate of free markets and a friend of President Reagan, bolstered by his newspapers' political endorsements, and the conservative elite.

Reagan's FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, has been quoted as saying that the granting of the Murdoch waivers was one of the best things he did during his FCC stewardship. It was to meet the requirements of the FCC's foreign ownership ban that Murdoch renounced Australian citizenship in a Manhattan courtroom in September 1985 and became a US citizen.

Not good enough, complains rival NBC, which argues that the News Corporation, 30 percent of whose stock is held by the Murdoch family, is incorporated in Australia and supplied most of the capital for Murdoch's station purchases in 1985.

Senior Murdoch employees deny any links between Murdoch's network wars and the publishing decision to sign Gingrich. The art of deniability is a skill in New York and Washington. So is ``hardball.'' Murdoch has counterpetitioned the FCC, striking back at GE's own qualifications as a network and station owner, alleging a ``pattern of illegal activities'' by GE.

Biographer William Shawcross defines Murdoch as the ultimate power player whose endgame is ``transforming the world.'' Murdoch shares grandiosity with Gingrich, who says his endgame is the renewal of American civilization. He also shares the book deal, still on the books, and potentially worth millions to the new Speaker of the House. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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