CNN founder Ted Turner once famously threatened to “squish him like a bug.” But ever since a 22-year-old Rupert Murdoch inherited two newspapers from his father in Canberra, Australia, in 1952, he’s been the one doing the squishing. As the mogul prepares to pass the 21st Century Fox baton to his son James, here are five defining ways he’s transformed the media landscape — for better or worse.
1. He Upended Broadcast Television
Murdoch bought Twentieth Century Fox in two installments in the 1980s along with seven television stations from Metromedia to create the first — and only — broadcast rival to the Big Three. He launched the Fox Broadcast Co. in 1986, even becoming a U.S. citizen to legally complete the station acquisitions. Because of rules forbidding content producers from owning stations, Fox network ran only 14 hours of national programming at first — an hour less than the legal definition of a network. His fierce lobbying helped change the rules.
Early on, Murdoch realized the centrality of sports in building network-size audiences. In 1993, Fox bought the rights to NFL games, swiping them from CBS, for nearly $1.6 billion, a huge sum at the time. “We’re a network now. Like no other sport will do, the NFL will make us into a real network,” Murdoch said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. He added presciently, “In the future there will be 400 or 500 channels on cable, and ratings will be fragmented. But football on Sunday will have the same ratings, regardless of the number of channels. Football will not fragment.”
2. He Stuck It to CNN and the Left With Fox News
Murdoch launched the 24-hour cable news channel Fox News in 1996, ushering in an era of partisan commentary that contributed to political polarization. With his loyal lieutenant, former Republican political consultant Roger Ailes, at the helm, Fox News was wildly successful from the outset — quickly overshadowing both CNN, which launched in 1980, and MSNBC, which was founded the same year as Fox News. It is Fox’s fastest growing property and biggest profit center.
“The appetite for news — particularly news that explains to people how it affects them — is expanding enormously,” Murdoch said at the press conference launching the site.
3. He Peppered the Skies With Satellites
In February of 1989, Murdoch started Sky Television in the U.K., a satellite service with four channels, taking a loss by giving away free satellite boxes. He merged the company with British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990 to create BSkyB, one of the world’s most powerful pay-TV platforms that expanded into Italy and Germany. In 1993, Murdoch acquired Asian satellite network Star TV based in Hong Kong.
James Murdoch first demonstrated his managerial chops as CEO of BSkyB — now called Sky — where he was shoehorned in by his father in a controversial move that had many long-timers at the company up in arms. But in his four years at the helm, from 2003-2007, James proved adept and the company prospered.
In 2003, Murdoch acquired a stake in DirecTV in an attempt to create an international satellite network that other industry players nervously dubbed the “Death Star.” But it never happened; three years later, he unloaded his stake to Liberty Media’s John Malone.
4. The Humbling Hacking Scandal
The media mogul who has always adored newspapers was at the center of one of the industry’s biggest scandals. Editors and journalists at his London-based News of the World were found to have illegally accessed the voicemails of hundreds of people, from celebrities to the phone of a murdered girl — the hack that inflamed public opinion created an international frenzy. He was forced to close the News of the World in 2011 and pay millions of dollars in damages; both Rupert and James Murdoch were called to testify in court proceedings.
A report by a British parliamentary panel said the elder Murdoch had showed “willful blindness” and declared him “not a fit person” to lead a major corporation. James had been running News Corp.’s U.K. business at the time and his future at the company had never seemed shakier. But he moved back to the U.S., was never charged, and will now follow his father to the helm of News Corp.
5. He Finessed Politicians of All Stripes
Murdoch has been one of the most successful moguls in courting politicians, largely because of the political influence he wields in the pages of his newspapers. With the help of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he broke the U.K. newspaper unions, weathering an epic year of violent unrest with thousands arrested in nightly battles and many wounded.
Murdoch had a reputation as a political conservative, and the hacking probe unveiled uncomfortably close links to then, and current, British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Tory government.
But Murdoch didn’t stick to one party line. New York’s Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo was Murdoch’s biggest supporter in lobbying the FCC to grant Murdoch an exemption from newspaper-TV cross-ownership rules so he could buy the bankrupt New York Post in 1993.
He backed Tony Blair’s candidacy three times and supported Hillary Clinton’s run for Senate in 2006, even hosting a fundraiser for her.