Mr. Murdoch's varied media portfolio includes one of London's sleazier tabloids, The Sun. " The Simpsons," cartoonist Matt Groening's family of underachievers, and "Beverly Hills, 90210," a Generation X soap opera, deliver desirable young audiences who media buyers dool for. Joan Rivers was supposed to get Fox off to a quick start, but her talk show bombed; "Melrose Place" (l.) a "90210" spinoff, now has a spin off of its own: "Models." CITIZEN MURDOCH THE 'ECLECTIC ENTREPRENEUR' OF THE MEDIA WORLD IS BACK ON TOP AS HIS EMPIRE PURSUES THE QUEST TO BE THE BEST

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In his biography of K. Rupert Murdoch, author William Shawcross writes of "a dashing character, a gambler and a spendthrift, always verging on the edge of catastrophic debt."

It must be something in the genes, because the author is describing not the book's subject but his maternal grandfather, Rupert Greene. From his father, Mr. Murdoch inherited a small newspaper in the South Australian city of Adelaide 41 years ago. From his grandfather, he inherited the qualities that enabled him to transform that paper into a vast media empire with tentacles in nearly every corner of the globe.

The 63-year-old News Corp. chairman, an Australian native now considered a foreigner in that country, is a study in contrasts.

As recently as 1990, his company was on the brink of financial disaster, nearly crushed by a $7.6 billion debt load. And his media properties, from the Fox network in the U.S. to London's downmarket Sun, have long been accused of pandering to the sleaziest common denominator.

Yet Mr. Murdoch is unarguably the world's most powerful-and restless-media baron. His recent, stunning raid of the Big 3 networks' affiliate base and the capture of NFL rights from CBS may not make financial sense on the surface, but they have been perceived as brilliant strategic strokes.

In a world where perception often is more important than reality, Mr. Murdoch's image in the media and financial communities has soared, paving the way for News Corp.'s continued expansion.

"He's right back on top, right back to where the company was before 1990," said Jessica Reif, media analyst with Oppenheimer & Co., New York. "He's made some really brilliant maneuvers in terms of getting distribution for Fox, and financially, there's nothing [negative] to talk about."

In an interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Murdoch said the media have blown his recent deals and aspirations out of proportion. But asked whether he had a global vision for News Corp., his response was unambiguous.

"It's an ambition as much as a vision," said Mr. Murdoch, who puts in 100-hour workweeks but admitted to a desire to spend less time criss-crossing the globe. "We want to be the best-not necessarily the biggest ... media company in the world, and with modern technology, everything is becoming more global.

"The marriage of the satellite and the computer and the television camera is just changing the whole world," he added. "If you don't get with it in the media, you're going to be marginalized and left behind."

Getting with it is just what Mr. Murdoch intends to do. He dreams of launching a global competitor to CNN and of beaming major sporting events and dramatic programming around the world in dozens of languages.

How he will get there is at least partially revealed by his spending habits of the past year. In July 1993, News Corp. paid $525 million for a controlling stake in Star TV, a satellite broadcaster with a potential reach of 3 billion viewers in Asia.

Last December, came the decision to spend a whopping $1.6 billion to snatch the National Football Conference TV rights from CBS. Estimates of how much will be lost on that package range from $100 million to $200 million annually; at the time it seemed like a desperate grab for attention (see related story on Page 66).

In late May came the most stunning deal, an agreement by Fox to invest $500 million in Ronald Perelman's New World Communications Group in exchange for up to 12 new, more powerful Big 3 network affiliates, an unprecedented turnover. That move wouldn't have been possible had Mr. Murdoch not earlier secured NFL rights.

With each of those deals-as with many of his earlier ones-critics smugly noted Mr. Murdoch paid too much.

"Just to make silly deals for the sake of announcing something and you get one day of pleasure and 22 years of pain doesn't make sense," snorted CBS Inc. Chairman-CEO Lawrence Tisch.

Mr. Murdoch, not surprisingly, views things differently.

"You could say the money we'll invest in [the NFL] is not a billion-six at all, it's some small proportion of that. It's a very cheap way to buy a network." The same goes for the New World investment, he added.

News Corp.'s financial situation is substantially sounder today than several years ago. Net income for fiscal 1993 was $605.2 million with revenues of $7.5 billion, compared with fiscal 1991's loss of $307.5 million. Analysts say those numbers will be even healthier for the year ending June 30.

That's a long way from 1990, when News Corp. executives and bankers scrambled furiously to restructure News Corp.'s short-term debt before the company unraveled. The effort succeeded at the 11th hour.

Since then, News Corp. has reduced its debt load and "just about all our borrowings are now long-term," Mr. Murdoch said.

The company also has turned to equity stakes and alliances to expand without taking on more debt. The Murdoch family still controls a 32% stake in the company.

"Mr. Murdoch is without peer as an asset builder and manager," said John Reidy, media analyst with Smith Barney Shearson, New York. "Not every quarter going forward will necessarily be outstanding in terms of performance. But we have absolutely no concerns about the News Corp. of '94 being able to do a lot more.

"Mr. Murdoch is an opportunist and eclectic entrepreneur," Mr. Reidy added. "He won't stop here in terms of expanding News Corp."

Even now, though, there are financial limits to what the company can do.

"We're not really contemplating any big deals at the moment," Mr. Murdoch said. Instead, News Corp. plans to pump profits into existing businesses, while he now will focus almost exclusively on building Fox and Star TV.

Expansion plans for Star include developing local-language channels to broadcast programming in Mandarin for Chinese viewers and Hindi for Indian viewers, for example. Before, all Star programming was in English.

In the U.S., Mr. Murdoch plans to increase Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.'s output, to develop better quality programming for Fox and to grow new cable network fX.

The company's global TV reach is further expanding through its 50% stake in British Sky Broadcasting, a European satellite network. Mr. Reidy said BSkyB is now throwing off $6 million a week in cash flow.

Sky has 3.6 million satellite homes in the U.K. Zenith Media, London, predicts satellite TV penetration will increase from about 17% today to 53% of all U.K. homes by 2003, most of it coming from BSkyB.

"Terrestrial broadcasting in the U.K. is all carved up. Murdoch's challenge is to carry on doing what he is doing, which is to encourage people to buy satellite dishes," said Adam Smith, Zenith associate director.

There are currently no plans to add a News Corp. presence in Africa, Canada or other new regions.

Of South Africa, Mr. Murdoch said, "We see that as pretty extraordinarily difficult. When you go into countries that don't yet have a strong democratic tradition and don't have free enterprise policies, it's very hard to see one being successful other than as a junior partner. It makes more sense to only go into situations that we can control."

In Latin America, Mr. Murdoch said News Corp. is pleased with the performance of cable channel El Canal Fox but has no additional expansion plans.

Of his desire to launch a global news network to compete with Ted Turner's powerhouse CNN, Mr. Murdoch said: "We've got more dreams than we have plans."

We'd like to do it, [but] we don't think there's any money in an international" CNN rival.

Mr. Turner launched CNN in June 1980 in much the way he built his superstation, TBS: beaming the channel's signal by satellite to cable system head-ends throughout the U.S. From its initial launch in 1.7 million TV homes in 1980, CNN has emerged as the dominant TV news brand, reaching virtually every one of the 64 million U.S. cable homes, as well as cable subscribers in Japan, Australia and Canada. In 1985, Turner Broadcasting System launched CNN International in Europe.

For Mr. Murdoch to create a viable rival to CNN will require first penetrating 100% of the U.S. cable market, an impossible short-term goal.

But that objective becomes more realistic as cable systems expand channel capacity, Mr. Murdoch said. Within five years, he predicted, there will be three or four CNN competitors. Asked if one will be his, he responded: "Oh, yeah. I certainly hope so."

He also acknowledged Fox needs a network news broadcast to be a "true network" and said one is in the works. Observers also note Fox's lack of morning, afternoon and late-night programming, though affiliate stations like having the extra time for lucrative syndicated fare.

As News Corp. expands globally, it traditionally uses newspapers and magazines as a calling card. From Hong Kong to London to New York, Mr. Murdoch often establishes a base on land before taking to the skies.

Now, however, he's pushing into the electronic realm with dizzying speed. And though he vows publishing will always be a core part of the company, some question his long-term commitment to the printed word.

Mr. Murdoch sold most of his U.S. magazines in 1991 to pay down debt and earlier sold newspapers in Chicago, Boston and New York to keep TV stations in those cities. (He has since repurchased the New York Post.)

"If there is good opportunity in electronic media and there's a good buyer for the newspapers, they will be sold," said Peter Dobrijevic, analyst at Barclay, deZoete Wedd, a Sydney brokerage.

"My view is that newspapers [in general] cannot survive in their current form much beyond the end of the decade," agreed Victor Shvets, analyst with brokerage McIntosh & Co. He said he thinks one logical strategy would be for News Corp. to sell majority control to outsiders while retaining electronic rights for use in developing new-media properties.

Rebecca Winnington-Ingram, a media analyst who follows News Corp. from Merrill Lynch & Co., London, remained unconvinced the U.K. newspapers will ever be jettisoned.

"There's ego involved here," she said. "He started off in newspapers, and he takes a very active interest in them."

For now at least, print remains essential to News Corp.'s health. In fiscal 1993, newspapers generated a healthy 39% of operating income and 29% of worldwide revenues. Magazines and free standing inserts chipped in 24% of operating profits and 15% of revenue. By comparison, TV and films combined contributed roughly a quarter of the empire's total operating profit.

But if print is the company's heart, TV clearly has become its soul. Mr. Murdoch has been hands-on at the network that Bart Simpson built and on the morning of his Ad Age interview had just come from fX's Manhattan studio.

That's why shock waves rippled through the media industry in recent weeks when a potential threat to Fox arose. The Federal Communications Commission is taking another look at Fox's ownership to determine whether the company violated federal law prohibiting foreign companies from owning more than a 25% stake in U.S. TV stations.

Mr. Murdoch became a U.S. citizen in 1985 to skirt that law. He holds 76% of the voting stock in Fox's U.S. parent company, but the stations forming Fox's early base were mostly bought with cash from News Corp., an Australian company.

It's unlikely the FCC will take action against Fox. And media industry executives say such gray areas are familiar to Mr. Murdoch.

"The one thing ... very consistent about Rupert is that he's always, always on the edge of what you can do and what you can't do," said Didier Guerin, president-CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Asia-Pacific, Sydney. "If he has to change the law to do what he wants to do, he will try to change the law. When he cannot change the law, he will go right on the edge of it."

Mr. Murdoch blamed CBS for fanning the flames and insisted "there's been no change in our position ... we would never mislead the FCC."

News Corp. managers say its willingness to walk a tightrope and act on instinct is a key to success.

"We operate much more on gut," said a News Corp. division executive who has worked for Mr. Murdoch for more than 10 years. "If something feels right, we'll just go ahead with it. It's a fun company to work for because it has that entrepreneurial spirit."

With his Fox investments, Mr. Murdoch is betting big on broadcast TV's future at a time when many believe the growth opportunities lie in cable TV and other distribution platforms. His defense?

"A lot of it is just propaganda by cable companies. They're all talking and they're issuing new statements every week about joint ventures, but the joint ventures are nearly all experiments and tests, none of which you've heard about being successful ... yet," he said. "I'm not saying we're not going to see great change, but I believe the American public and the world public is used to getting many hours of free entertainment and information through their television screens. And that's going to continue."

Mr. Murdoch still wants to be a player on the so-called information superhighway-if it's ever clearly defined. For now, he's content to dabble in interactivity primarily through owning online service Delphi (see related story on Page 20).

"Maybe the superhighway is in fact the Internet and all these online services," Mr. Murdoch said. "That has a great deal more meaning than pay-per-view television programs. We don't know yet."

You can bet he intends to find out.

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