MURDOCH HEADS MAINSTREAM

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As a major global media power, Rupert Murdoch heads the list. Now we're about to find out how good he is as a brand manager.

Taking a huge chance, he's going "mainstream" with one of his great niche brands, the Fox television network, a brand that made its mark by building audience and advertiser support largely with programs aimed at 34-and-unders.

Mr. Murdoch now finds it necessary to change his formula to pursue 18-to-49-year-olds. The idea is to broaden Fox's advertiser appeal and make it more of a fourth network, not a niche option.

To that end, his Fox Entertainment Group has named former top CBS programmer John Matoian its top programmer, and he'll be working with Brandon Tartikoff, the former NBC program chief who is now a Fox supplier.

Traditional thinking holds marketers must honor the brand franchise by sticking with their brands' strengths and avoiding temptations to digress into enemy turf. Yet here's Mr. Murdoch about to dilute Fox's predominantly young demographics strength.

There's a sense he'll be giving up his competitive edge by taking Fox "mainstream" and becoming more like the Big Three. But Fox's "edge" has costly limitations; among many advertiser categories, it's a liability.

The appointment of Mr. Matoian, most recently head of Fox's Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.'s family film division, signals Mr. Murdoch's application of his "mass market" talents to network-building. Real network TV is mass-audience programming; it must also attract older men and women, the parents of those young viewers.

Because those older viewers who tune to Fox's Sunday NFL football wander off once the games end, Mr. Murdoch clearly wants Mr. Matoian to develop Sunday prime-time shows that will hold those older male viewers-and the advertisers who target them.

If this brand-stretching works, Fox becomes more competitive if less unique. Now, assuming Mr. Murdoch succeeds, does Fox then become a mainstream brand?

Not so fast. His next challenge will be to develop a nightly network news report. When he gets that up and running, he'll have built himself a real TV network-and yet another powerful brand.

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