Lachlan Murdoch Talks Post-Disney Strategy, Studio Plans and Fox News Infighting

ONE TIME USE ONLY -THR 100 -Murdochs-Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan-H  2019
Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan

The Fox Corp. executive chairman and CEO explains his vision for a slimmed-down company, from acquisitions to sports betting as "the traditional metrics of the business are all incredibly strong."

Fox News grabs all the headlines (and most of the bottom line, generating about $1 billion a year in profit), but the slimmed-down Fox Corp. under executive chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch, 48, and his chairman father, Rupert, 88, is no one-trick pony. Since the sale of most of 21st Century Fox to Disney closed in March, Fox has diversified its remaining broadcast network and sports operation with acquisitions of an online finance brokerage (Credible Labs), a sports gambling venture (Fox Bet) and a fledgling television studio. On a recent morning (before Fox News anchor Shepard Smith abruptly left the network), Lachlan invited The Hollywood Reporter to his office on the West L.A. lot to discuss his news- and sports-heavy strategy and why Fox News talent can't seem to get along.

Many of the top media companies are launching massive streaming services. What will direct-to-consumer mean for New Fox?

We have a very strong D-to-C strategy, but it's not a platform SVOD strategy. Frankly, we don't have the entertainment library to support that. But take Fox Sports and what we're doing on our authenticated streaming apps, where on any given Sunday, we'll have 135,000 people streaming the NFL through their app.

You’ve got a stand-alone streaming service in Fox Nation, for Fox News superfans. Where does Fox Nation need to be to be considered a success?

It’s a success already. It’s small, right? And it’s growing. We haven’t put a ton behind it yet. The conversion rate from people who trial it to paying subscribers is very high. But we haven’t done any sort of external promotion of it or really given it a push yet, partially because we still a) want to make sure the technology is stable, but b) we want to have as much content on there as possible.

You've made a couple of acquisitions, like Bento Box, which makes animated shows. Do you anticipate rebuilding a studio business?

We do. Owning your IP is incredibly important. But what we're trying to do is look at a new model where we can do it with as little overhead as possible. So whether it's the acquisition of Bento Box, or, we've taken over production of Masked Singer in-house, which was important. And then with Gail Berman rejoining the team as well, it was important to re-engage in production but with as streamlined an overhead as possible.

Charlie Collier, who runs the Fox network, recently said he wants to distinguish Fox by giving creators better back-end participation than some of these more vertically integrated companies are offering. Is that something you’ve discussed with him?

Sure. But I think the ultimate distinguisher is to give people a platform to do their best work.

So does Charlie have more leeway to give bigger talent back-ends than the streamers?

Absolutely. He’s the boss.

Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane has said he's "embarrassed" to work for Fox. It has to be awkward when valuable creators disagree so strongly with the product at Fox News.

I don't think it's awkward at all, actually. We've never steered any creator to have a political bent or to influence what they put on our air.

But it's gotten so nasty at Fox News.

Look, I think unfortunately in this country, there is less and less civil debate, and I think we're all poorer for it.

Your family has been in the news business your whole life. Does the scourge of misinformation out there bother you?

One of the challenges is social media, whether it's Twitter, Facebook — I'm not sure about Google but, you know, platforms that are not managed. In New Zealand, when Facebook streamed the mass shooting, one of the things they said was, "We can't control everything that's on our platform." Is it a good platform, then? If you can't control it? That's not an excuse, right?

Do you believe Mark Zuckerberg when he says he cares about the information on his platform?

If he doesn’t care about it, he needs to start caring about it. And that’s not just Mark.

Who in the media world right now is impressing you? Can't say Bob Iger.

Why can’t I say Iger?

Because he bought your company!

I’ll be interested to read his book. And I suppose I can’t say ourselves. I've got to say the gaming companies, Bobby Kotick [at Activision Blizzard] and those guys are doing a tremendous job, following the trends with usage and what people are doing. Also Jeffrey Katzenberg with Quibi.

Do you believe Quibi will work?

If anyone can make it work, it’s Jeffrey, so —

Everybody says that. Do you think it’ll work?

Look, we’re producing for him, right? We have incentive to help him make it work.

In an environment where competitors have such scale, what is the growth strategy for a company like Fox? Is it acquisitions, or can you grow with what you have?

We absolutely can grow with what we have. Fundamentally, the traditional metrics of the business are all incredibly strong. Advertising is very strong. You have subscriber erosion in the satellite universe, but we are compensating for that with the rates. Our season premieres [on Fox] have been terrific, but the broadcast TV audience, it's shrinking. And with further investment into SVOD, there's going to be more and more choices. So for us, we focus on live sports, live news.

How much priority are you putting on the gambling business you now have?

We've launched Super Six, which is a national free game, which has done incredibly well. And then you funnel people down into the sports betting, but that's done state by state as you get licensed. At the moment it's only in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But as you grow and go to more states, you'll improve the Fox Bet game experience.

Do you anticipate using sports broadcasts to promote your gaming business?

You've got to be careful. We will have some shows around sports betting. But you don't want to ruin the sports viewing experience.

Do you miss the film studio?

No. I miss the executives. There were some great executives. But it’s a tough business.

Did it annoy you when Iger took a swipe at the Fox film slate recently?

No, we sold Bob some tremendous assets. He bought a large business that was operating very well.

Would a Trump impeachment trial be good or bad for Fox News?

Look, the news cycle has been crazy for everyone. And there’s a point where people become exhausted. But if you look at this administration, the network that has benefitted the most has been MSNBC.

Some have said that if Roger Ailes were around, he would not tolerate the infighting among the hosts on Fox News. How much string do you give them?

I can't speak to if Roger were around or not, but unfortunately in this country there's less and less civil debate. Civil debate among our countrymen and our colleagues at work is something we always aspire to.

There’s Succession, Ink on Broadway, then The Loudest Voice and Bombshell about Fox News. That’s four separate projects this year that are either about your family business or a veiled story about your family. Why do you think people are so interested now? 

Well, I’m not sure they’re all about our family. But people are searching for good storylines. I think a lot of these are more fictional than they are reality, but, you know, that’s up to writers and producers to decide.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.