How News Corp could win as Murdoch enters Disney's magic kingdom

A deal that will reshape the global media landscape has (finally) been formally announced.

Rupert Murdoch's entertainment conglomerate 21st Century Fox Group will sell key assets to storied film and theme parks giant Disney.

This week, the drumbeats got deafeningly loud as specific details of the deal, which has been in the works for weeks, started to leak out.

Late on Thursday night confirmation came that Disney would pay $US52.4 billion ($67.8 billion) in stock for Fox's film studios, cable TV stations and international operations, or $US66.1 billion including debt.

When reports first broke that the Murdochs were talking to Disney (and other companies, such as US cable giant Comcast) about selling assets they had spent decades building up, it shocked most industry observers.

Initially, the unexpected move was framed as a retreat by the octogenerian Australian born mogul, in the face of the threat of tech giants like Netflix and Amazon.

But it is increasingly clear it is more complicated than that.

For starters, it looks like the Murdochs will retain the asset they built that arguably has had a bigger impact on the world than any other: the controversial 24 hour cable station Fox News.

(Would there be a President Trump without Fox News? The question has certainly been asked).

Existing Fox shareholders (including the Murdochs) would retain the Fox News, Fox Business News and Fox Sports channels in the US.

So, rather than a retreat from big media, this looks more like a retreat from scripted entertainment to live entertainment and news.

That represents more comfortable terrain for Rupert and his eldest son Lachlan, according to people who have worked for the Murdochs. Less so for James, but he might end up at Disney.

The key question, from an Australian perspective, is whether the assets not sold to Disney could eventually be merged back into Murdoch's other (better known in these parts) company, News Corp.

The Wall Street Journal reported that such a move is unlikely in the short term due to tax implications. But analysts think it is less a matter of if, but when.

"We believe it is reasonable to expect the Murdochs to merge the two entities following the closing of Disney/Fox," New York based analyst Rich Greenfield of BTIG told clients on Thursday as firmer details of the deal leaked out.

"Why have two public companies with their associated overhead costs".

Macquarie analysts also said last week that the Murdochs could do "practically anything" with the proceeds of a Disney deal, including the re-merging the assets they didn't sell with News Corp.

News Corp, which employs thousands of Australians, still houses Murdoch's global (and local) newspaper assets, and its stakes in digital real estate platform REA Group, and pay TV company Foxtel.

Back in 2013, amid a phone hacking scandal in the UK, it was separated from the Fox assets, a move designed to unlock value for shareholders who were concerned returns were being depressed by exposure to print.

Now a re-union that would have seemed unlikely a short while ago could be on the cards. And it could become a significant force. "It has always made sense to leverage the Wall Street Journal brand into Fox Business Channel," said Greenfield.

Even if a re-merger doesn't happen, it seems certain the Murdochs will remain influential in the global media landscape.

Reports suggest Fox shareholders will be paid entirely in Disney shares, and will collectively own about 25 per cent of the larger company.

That would mean the Murdochs could emerge with a significant stake in the company made famous by Mickey Mouse.

According to Reuters, that stake would be below 5 per cent.

Yet as things stand, Disney's biggest individual shareholder, Lorraine Powell Jobs (the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs) holds just 4.26 per cent of the company.

It is unusual for an historic media company to have no controlling shareholder and the situation could, in theory provide an opening for the Murdochs to try and exert their influence.

It is unclear whether James Murdoch will be handed a senior executive role at Disney, but reports suggest the family will not get any board seats.

Regardless, if part of the reason to sell Fox assets to Disney is for James and Lachlan to go their separate ways, then perhaps that is unlikely. "While it might make business sense, it is probably the personal dynamics driving this deal" said one person familiar with the family. "Neither really wants to let the other one lead or dominate."

This story How News Corp could win as Murdoch enters Disney's magic kingdom first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.