Rupert Murdoch’s Very Big 2018 Caps a Career of Hollywood Disruption
From launching a new broadcast network to upending the cable news hierarchy, the 87-year-old media innovator made perhaps his boldest move in selling most of his company to Disney.
In January 1986, after years of negotiations with Rupert Murdoch, the printers that serviced his British newspapers went on strike after Murdoch demanded that they sign a new contract in which striking itself was forbidden.
Almost 6,000 workers left their jobs, bringing publications from The Times of London to News of the World to a standstill. What they didn't know was that this was part of a calculated move by the Australian press baron to get rid of them all.
Murdoch, then 54 and still at the dawn of his international career, had been seeking to modernize his papers by using offset litho technology rather than "hot metal." In other words, reporters could type their stories directly into a computerized system, bypassing the middlemen who had previously laid everything out. But restrictive labor laws meant the magnate was unable to simply go ahead with the change, thereby making most of his printers redundant. He would have to give each one a massive payout. The only way around this (thanks to a new law passed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) was to fire them if they went on strike during "negotiations." Then he could do so with impunity and no redundancy pay.
And so Murdoch issued an impossible ultimatum, his printers went on strike, and he replaced every one, moving his entire newspaper business to Wapping in east London, where he secretly had been building a cutting-edge plant using the very technology his printers were refusing to embrace. The result was enormous upheaval: a yearlong strike, lingering loathing and a huge win for the tycoon — and perhaps, in the long run, for the British press, which would have collapsed under the pressure of the printers' costs.
It was England's first taste of Murdoch the Disrupter, a polarizing force who was in equal measure ruthless and brilliant, who used his business to further a political agenda and his politics to further his business deals. But it was only the beginning of a career in which Murdoch would upend traditional ways of thinking.
This is the same man who bought a movie studio, 20th Century Fox, and then used its TV stations to launch a fourth broadcast network; who invested heavily in pay TV and sports before many understood their worth; who turned a cable TV network, Fox News, into the most influential and divisive news operation in the world; and who developed ties to politicians across the globe so that they would support him, even as he supported them.
Elected officials from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump, from Tony Blair to David Cameron, have known that their rise or fall is in part dependent on him. Media titans from Times editor Harold Evans to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes have understood that their power is meaningless without Murdoch's support.
None of the kingpin's actions has ever quite rivaled his audacious creation of the Fox Broadcasting Company, which stemmed from his 1985 purchase of six TV stations in major cities, obtained for $2.5 billion from John Kluge's Metromedia. Adding affiliated stations, Murdoch began with limited programming a few nights each week, having little success before Married … With Children and The Tracey Ullman Show — programming as disruptive as Murdoch himself — and ultimately the breakout Simpsons.
The businessman understood that Fox could succeed by avoiding regulatory hurdles that restrained its rivals: It had too few hours of regular programming to qualify as a network. It worked by targeting a younger demographic unchained to the Big Three networks and by Murdoch's willingness to keep spending in the face of losses.
None of this was without immense risk. There were times when his showmanship took him to the brink. He had to become a U.S. citizen in order to legally maintain his American empire, and in 1990, he was on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to a mountain of debt, only to save News Corp. by convincing his lenders to hold tight.
Along the way, Murdoch hired and fired a roster of executives who almost always made the mistake of believing they were as talented as him. The mogul-to-be Barry Diller, pivotal to the creation of Fox Broadcasting, could be sacrificed, as could Ailes when his turn came, even if Murdoch needed prodding from his sons. Men and women have come and gone — and sometimes returned (son Lachlan Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks), but Murdoch has always remained at the helm — or at least he did until 2015, when his son James became CEO, leaving Rupert as executive co-chairman with his other son, Lachlan.
That seemed to mark the end of an era. But Murdoch, now 87, this most original of all executives if never the most loved, had one great disruption left in him: dismantling the very empire he had built — something unimaginable in his Wapping days.
His decision to sell most of Fox's assets to Disney in a $71.3 billion deal, first revealed in November 2017, didn't mark the waning of a career so much as its last, effulgent explosion. Disruption, he proved, wasn't a means to an end; it was the end itself.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.