rupert murdoch celebrates his 90th birthday with tv comeback bid

© Provided by The Telegraph Murdoch illo

Piers Morgan had a date with destiny. Six months after he marched off the set of Good Morning Britain, challenged by an on-air colleague over his speculations on the mental health of the Duchess of Sussex, the 56-year-old is ready to make yet another comeback.

Morgan is bringing his shape-shifting career full circle. He will return “home” to the Murdoch empire, he tweeted on Thursday, having left in 1995 after a privacy invasion ended a brief stint as editor of the News of the World.

The deal covers books and tabloid columns on both sides of the Atlantic. Most significantly, however, from April 2022 Morgan will host a nightly show on TalkTV, a new broadcast channel more than two years in the planning.

Rupert Murdoch boasted that he had secured “the broadcaster every channel wants but is too afraid to hire”. For a media mogul past the twilight of his career and into the witching hour, the troubled development of TalkTV has been worth it for one more chance to prove he can challenge the status quo in Britain – and succeed where GB News has stumbled.

To seasoned Murdoch watchers, the timing of the announcement seemed to serve two purposes. First, it overshadowed the Royal Television Society’s conference. The British broadcasting establishment, the targets of Murdoch disdain over several decades, were gathered in Cambridge to contemplate their own increasingly precarious positions as the infinite choice of the streaming age erodes traditional television audiences.

Second, Murdoch aimed to set the scene for his 90th birthday party on Saturday night at his home near Henley, Oxfordshire. He began his tenth decade in March, with Britain only just beginning to exit lockdown. Months later and having thanked the NHS for his vaccinations, Murdoch will finally, discreetly celebrate.

rupert murdoch celebrates his 90th birthday with tv comeback bid

© Provided by The Telegraph Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016

At Holmwood, a 14,200 sq ft Georgian pile on a southern knoll of the Chilterns, Murdoch and his fourth wife, the model Jerry Hall, will host executives, friends, family and  politicians who dare accept his hospitality a decade after the phone hacking scandal. TalkTV, which it is said Murdoch has backed against the advice of some of his senior executives, is viewed as his latest rebuke to those who sought to bring him down.

Its roots extend at least to the £30bn takeover of Sky by the US cable operator Comcast in 2018. For the second time Murdoch had been pursuing full ownership of the satellite broadcaster, and for the second time had been thwarted by the British political and regulatory system.

The first bid collapsed under the weight of the phone hacking scandal. The second got bogged down in regulatory wrangling, against a backdrop of political instability triggered by the Brexit vote and claims from opponents such as Ed Miliband that he would seek to turn Sky News into a British version of Fox News, his bombastic US channel. Defeat was less humbling the second time around, however. By the time Comcast swooped, Murdoch had already decided to sell most of his television business to Disney for $71bn (£52bn).

The landmark deal left him without a stake in the British television industry for the first time since he founded Sky in 1989. The founders of GB News spotted the opportunity, and made an approach for investment with an idea that could have come from Murdoch’s own mind. Brexit had shown that British television news was out of touch and too Left-wing, the entrepreneurs argued. GB News would serve an ignored audience with populist programming made at relatively low cost with new technology.

Murdoch was interested. In 2019 Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News UK, the publisher of the Sun and broadcaster of TalkRadio, was dispatched to make informal inquiries at Ofcom, the media watchdog and an important Murdoch antagonist during the phone hacking scandal.

How might regulators react if he was to become a minority investor in GB News, she asked. The sale of Sky to Comcast meant there would be no media plurality concerns, Brooks was told. A few months later, News UK told Ofcom that it had decided to develop its own, wholly owned channel instead.

rupert murdoch celebrates his 90th birthday with tv comeback bid

© Provided by The Telegraph Rebekah Brooks

It began as another 24-hour news channel. Fox News became one of Murdoch’s most lucrative businesses once it hit on the right formula, and he has long believed that a similar success is possible in the UK despite losses in the tens of millions of pounds a year for Sky News. 

David Rhodes, a high-powered US television news executive with a background including Fox News, CBS and Bloomberg, was hired to lead the project and moved his family to London just as Covid hit the West.

Over the following year the project foundered as the pandemic battered the economy and fast-forwarded the digital revolution. Some staff said there was also a clash between Rhodes and the less formal culture of Fleet Street.

Over time it became clear that the structure of the British television market would make a rolling news channel unprofitable. The BBC and Sky News benefit from guaranteed funding, and impartiality regulations make one-sided schedules in the Fox News mould impossible. After a year, Rhodes was out, securing a soft landing at Sky in international business development.

“There was a clear vision to create a news channel and when he realised that wasn’t going to happen he moved on,” says a source.

In April this year, when the project had once been scheduled for launch, Brooks announced that Rhodes had left and rolling news was “not commercially viable”. Other executives came and went. Sebastian Scott, a British producer with a CV including the Big Breakfast on Channel 4, The Wright Stuff on Channel 5 and Working Lunch for the BBC, did not prove a hit with News UK colleagues.

It was widely assumed that News UK was abandoning broadcast television altogether to focus on a smattering of online video productions such as News To Me, an entertainment news show. However, in the background Murdoch had gone back to the drawing board to come up with new but no less ambitious plans to return to the airwaves.

Amid what one insider described as “strategic chaos”, News UK had hired Winnie Nelson, a producer on Good Morning Britain who would later play a crucial role in the deal with Morgan.

rupert murdoch celebrates his 90th birthday with tv comeback bid

© Provided by The Telegraph Piers Morgan with Rupert Murdoch

In the subsequent months a more stable atmosphere is said to have prevailed. Scott Taunton, the long-serving head of News UK’s radio business, has been put in charge of the project.

TalkTV is expected to emerge next year as a mix of current affairs debates, chat shows and news bulletins. It will aim to combine star power from Morgan, and radio DJs Chris Evans and Graham Norton, with low-cost in-house studio production to build a big enough audience to make a return from sponsorships and advertising.

Brooks bought the radio business in 2016 for what was viewed as a very full price of £220m and has invested heavily signing up big names.

News UK is partly seeking to restore income and influence it once drew from the Sun. As losses have mounted, its accounting valuation has been written down to zero and circulation has dipped as low as 800,000, according to industry sources. The figure represents a loss of 2m sales over the past decade, and the paper continues to rack up costs from phone hacking settlements. A case brought by the Duke of Sussex is yet to be heard.

Friends of Morgan say his deal signals the future of the Murdoch empire, efficiently squeezing returns from established properties via as many outlets as possible.

As well as TalkTV, Morgan’s show will be aired in the US and Australia. It has the potential to make him very wealthy, as he is understood to have secured a share of the rights via Wake Up Productions, a vehicle set up in July. Morgan declined to comment on the set-up.

According to one ally, the structure was partly inspired by his News UK colleague Jeremy Clarkson’s lucrative Top Gear rights deal with the BBC. Although they are now friends, Clarkson once famously repeatedly punched Morgan in the head at a Fleet Street awards event.     

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