James Murdoch Addresses NFL Ratings, Avoids Disney Talk

James Murdoch speaks onstage during "Fox and the Future" - Getty -  H 2017
Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Murdoch made it clear that he didn't want to discuss news that Fox was negotiating a sale of some of its assets to Disney.

James Murdoch, CEO of 21st Century Fox, acknowledged falling NFL ratings are a drag on the entertainment conglomerate.

"I can't tell you the NFL decline isn't a challenge," he said Tuesday at the 45th Annual Global Media and Communications Conference. The exec also said ad sales around some NFL games have become "tricky."

Murdoch steered clear of the political controversy surrounding the NFL, where some players continue to protest the National Anthem, and instead suggested that ratings are lower because there are more football games, NFL and college, televised now than in years past. 

Even though year-over-year ratings are down, the NFL "remains tremendously powerful" due in part to the "scarcity of value" in live sports.

At the top of his presentation, Murdoch said he didn't want to discuss news that Fox was negotiating a sale of some of its assets to Disney. "It would be wrong to comment on market speculation, on what's out there in the press," he said. "There's nothing to add to that, other than the nothing that we've said so far." 

Murdoch added the usual caveat, though, that he and Fox are working hard to "create the most value for shareholders."

Shares of Fox were up 2 percent Tuesday on reports that a deal could be very close, and they are up 35 percent since news broke a month ago that Fox was looking to possibly sell its film and TV studio and some cable channels. Disney is in the forefront, but other potential suitors include Sony, Comcast and Verizon.

Also at the conference, Murdoch raved about the potential of virtual cable TV services, such as Hulu, where Fox is a partner. He said the company's cable channels, like FX, have seen slight declines in subscribers due to cord-cutting, but said that growth will return with the growing popularity of skinny bundles and on-demand services

Murdoch said the movie business at Fox had an "OK start to the year," as Kingsman: The Golden Circle performed admirably while War for the Planet of the Apes did well but slightly underperformed Fox's expectations.

The exec said The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, is "a great movie. Really special." The movie about the Pentagon Papers opens Jan. 12. 

Murdoch also predicted good things for The Greatest Showman, set for Dec. 20, and The Shape of Water, now in limited release.