What will Rupert Murdoch do with his cash pile?

Well if past performance is any guide he’ll go shopping for a few more big media assets.

His company News Corporation has just announced that third quarter revenue was up 19 per cent on the previous year to a stonking $8.8bn even though profits actually fell 69 per cent (last year’s figures were flattered by the part sale of technology company NDS).

A big driver for News Corp has been Fox Studios’ James Cameron film Avatar which is now the highest-grossing film of all time, over $2bn and still rising.

But the surging revenue, in a global market that is still feeling its way out of recession, means that News Corp is sitting on a cash pile of several billion dollars. And uncle Rupert is not known for stashing his money away in the bank, investing heavily in properties like the Wall Street Journal even in a period of soaring asset prices.

Just now asset prices are tumbling after a year of recovery as the financial markets labour under a bad spell of the heebie jeebies about indebted countries in Europe; Greece, Portugal, Spain and very likely the UK.

So the message is pretty clear. The ever-predatory Murdoch will be casting his eye around for bargains. But where will he look?

Apart from the WSJ, which appears mightily invigorated under his tutelage, his last big attempted foray was ITV when BSkyB (a third owned by News Corp) bought a 17.9 per cent share to scupper a proposed merger from rival Virgin Media.

It was subsequently forced to sell down this holding at a big loss by the UK’s Competition Commission although it was job done in terms of thwarting Sir Richard Branson and co.

But Sky has recently, and very grudgingly, agreed to supply BT’s nascent digital TV offering with some programming at reduced rates even as it takes court action against the competition authorities’ demand that it cuts the wholesale price of its content.

Let’s suppose that Sky should offer to come to a content deal across the board without a court fight but, in return, be allowed to buy its way back into ITV. What would the competition authorities, regulator Ofcom and the Competition Commission, make of that?

Bearing in mind that in all likelihood there’ll soon a be a UK government led by Conservative David Cameron who’s already promised to clip Ofcom’s wings and which owes Rupert a big favour as he switched the backing of the Sun and The Times from Labour to the Conservatives (a trifle reluctantly insiders say).

Of course Murdoch may choose to spend his money in the growth markets of India, China and the Far East.

But he already has big operations there and does pride himself on generating cash from traditional media assets, although The Times has always confounded even his abilities.

If ITV isn’t on the agenda he could always buy struggling UK broadcaster Five from German owner RTL.

Five just isn’t big enough to cut it at the moment and RTL either doesn’t have the money to spend on it or has decided that so doing would be throwing good money after bad.

Murdoch, the septuagenarian content king, does have the money.

Imagine what effect the first UK TV showing of Avatar on Five would have on audiences and perceptions of the channel.

The old boy will probably confound us all and do something completely different.

But doing nothing is definitely not an option.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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