Biz net, 'Idol' on Murdoch agenda


NEW YORK -- An animated Rupert Murdoch talked up Fox Business Channel and the "American Idol" franchise, touted the global branding prospects of his latest coup Dow Jones -- and managed in passing to take swipes at a few competitors -- during a Q&A session with investment fund managers Tuesday in New York.

As hints of a looming recession swirled, the News Corp. chairman-CEO nonetheless appeared buoyant and feisty, aiming his most aggressive arrows at MySpace's growing rival Facebook, which has gained on the social networking leader in recent months.

The mogul told the 500-odd investors at the 16th annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference that MySpace had better security measures and deemed Facebook's moves to a more open strategy as unsafe.

"If you wanted to stalk a young girl on Facebook, it would be very, very easy," Murdoch argued. "You can't do that on MySpace."

(Murdoch's questioner during the session appeared clearly to disagree with that contention.)

Murdoch also said that MySpace presents a unique opportunity for advertisers to "hyper-target" the site's 110 million registered users. He downplayed the notion that the site is waning in popularity because a good percentage of the nation's population is already using the portal.

When asked about a potential deal to swap MySpace with Yahoo for a 25% stake in that company, Murdoch said that News Corp. has "never talked about it."

Murdoch would not give specific details on Fox Business Channel, but he promised that it would be for "Main Street" whereas NBC Universal's CNBC is "for Wall Street." He also suggested that CNBC had been stagnant for 10 years, since then-president Roger Ailes left to help start Fox News Channel, where he remains president.

FBC, which launches Oct. 15, would focus more on "innovations" and "successes," whereas CNBC dwells more on "failures" and "scandals," Murdoch said. He doesn't see a conflict with the fact that the Wall Street Journal, owned by the recently-acquired Dow Jones, has a contract to supply reporters to his competitor for business stories and said that he would use those reporters instead for politics and news coverage.

As for the Dow Jones acquisition, which was agreed to last month for $5.6 billion, Murdoch painted it as a long-term investment for this "unique period in the planet's history." As globalization continues and more people around the world have more access to money, institutions like the WSJ will provide a much-needed service, he said.

"The thirst for financial information has never been like this before," said Murdoch, who predicted that it would keep growing for another 30 years.

He also gave a strong indication that WSJ would make its online content free; it is currently available for paid subscribers only.

"I haven't made up my mind yet." Murdoch admitted. "It's right on the front burner."

He estimated that initial losses from making the content free of charge could be $30 million, but he said the brand could add 10 to 15 million highly valued customers around the world. Therefore, he said, "that looks to be the way we're going."

On the broadcast side, Murdoch admitted that the contestants on the latest version of Fox's "American Idol" didn't have as much charisma as those in past seasons have had. He was confident, though, that the next version would be much better.

"It's got years and years of life," he said.

He also conceded that last fall the network had "too much baseball" and that this interfered with the debut of fall series. Fox will carry the World Series and the American League Championship Series next month.

When asked why stock prices underperform for a company that has generally been successful, Murdoch joked that he was to blame. He said investors might be worried that he will make another risky acquisition or move.

He then defended his decision to launch FNC and to buy MySpace, both of which had come under scrutiny at the time the deals were announced. Murdoch said that MySpace is now worth at least twenty times what he paid for it.

He said, though, that News Corp. currently "doesn't have anything in our sights at all."
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