21st Century Fox Chief Executive James Murdoch is believed to be seeking a continuing role at Disney should the Burbank entertainment giant acquire the bulk of rival studio’s film and television assets, sources say.
Some speculate Murdoch may harbor ambitions to assume the helm at Disney when CEO Bob Iger retires, according to multiple sources who’ve spoken with Deadline. But one person close to the executive dismissed such chatter as tea-leaf reading and simply “ridiculous.”
Disney remains in active discussions to acquire Fox’s film and television studio, a number of cable television networks, including FX, its 39% stake in UK satellite television provider Sky and India’s Star TV, as well as its 30% share of the Hulu streaming service.
A Disney deal, should the two parties overcome remaining hurdles in negotiations, would return Fox’s lucrative X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises to Disney’s comic book fold, net another billion-dollar science fiction franchise in Avatar, and bolster the company’s already robust roster of animated Disney and Pixar characters would gain the longest-running animated television show in history, The Simpsons, and some prehistoric mastodons from Ice Age.
Hanging over talks is the prospect that Disney could lose an attractive media property to a giant rival like Comcast, sources say.
Combining two major film and TV studios would inevitably bring an excess of top-level executives, not all of whom will be able to find suitable roles in the merged company. There have been rumors that Amazon Studios may have approached Fox film chairman Stacey Snider, and, as we have reported, Fox TV co-chairman Dana Walden also may be on Amazon’s wish list for a Roy Price replacement.
As for possible James Murdoch Disney CEO aspirations, the company has not publicly disclosed a succession plan for Iger, who has postponed his planned retirement three times. One heir apparent, Tom Staggs, stepped down as chief operating officer in April of 2016, as some board members privately expressed qualms about his ability to lead Disney.
Parks Chief Bob Chapek is seen by Disney-watchers as preening for the role, following a recent Bloomberg article that identified him as a contender for the job. The story offered highlighted of his 24-year career at the company, which included the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, his stewardship running the consumer products division and his early days overseeing home entertainment.
Murdoch would be an unconventional choice for Disney, and Iger may well stay on beyond his planned July 2019 departure, should the deal be consummated, the Wall Street Journal reported.
But Disney has gone outside the magic kingdom before in selecting its top executive — as it did in 1984, when it named Michael Eisner, the president and chief executive of a rival movie studio, Paramount Pictures, as the new Disney CEO.
James Murdoch has been working in international television for over 17 years, starting with his appointment as Chairman and Chief Executive of Asian pay-TV service Star. He was widely observed to have turned the business around in his four year tenure. He then became Chief Executive of BSkyB, then a UK-only pay service, in November 2003. Sky grew massively during his reign, hitting an ambitious target, set in August 2004, of 10 million subscribers in November 2010. It expanded its offerings during this period including high definition television, broadband and home phone services and a successful move into digital services.
He stepped down from his role as Chief Executive in December 2007 to run News Corp’s European and Asian media operations, replaced by Jeremy Darroch. Despite his successes, his 2010 bid to take full control of Sky was blocked by the UK government after a controversial phone-hacking scandal involving reporters at News Corporation newspapers.
James Murdoch was tarred by the scandal, which led to the closure of the News of the World newspaper, after it was revealed that he was told in June 2008 that phone hacking was widespread within the company. He and his father gave evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2011, where he admitted he did not fully read an email relating to the issue. He subsequently stepped down in September 2011 from the board of directors at News Group Newspapers. The recent move to restart Fox’s takeover of Sky, which is still ongoing albeit with delays, will also cost 21st Century Fox $3 billion more than if it had succeeded in 2010.
The younger Murdoch is considered popular if slightly prickly character who has shied away from publicity in the UK and rarely hits the London event scene. However, he is considered to have been the driving force behind Sky’s incredibly successful environmental policies and had an intriguing start to his media career, backing hip hop record label Rawkus Records, responsible for artists including Talib Kweli and Mos Def, before selling it to News Corp in 1998.