Rupert’s Age, Apple/NFL, and the Bomb of the Pandemic

Rupert Murdoch
Photo by PG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
Matthew Belloni
April 17, 2022

In honor of the holidays, I’m answering some reader questions in a mailbag edition of this column. Thanks to everyone who submitted queries and apologies if I didn’t get to yours. Read on, below, for what I’m hearing about Rupert Murdoch, Mike Richards, the future of the WarnerMedia assets, and more.

What’s up with Rupert Murdoch? I’ve heard he’s slowed down a lot lately, but there hasn’t been any media coverage of this.

Well, the guy’s 91 now, so I hope he’s slowed down. But yes, there are rumblings in the U.K. that Murdoch has been less active and out of sight, especially since the whole succession battle has been resolved and eldest son Lachlan sits firmly atop Fox Corp. I don’t totally buy that Rupert has checked out, especially since he’s about to launch TalkTV, a new network in the U.K. So on Thursday’s episode of my podcast, The Town, I asked Jim Rutenberg, both of the Times and the new CNN+ docu-series The Murdochs: Empire of Influence, what he thinks is going on. “I’ve heard the same chatter,” Rutenberg told me. “Sometimes he does pull back. When he was just getting together with his new wife Jerry Hall, he pulled back a bit.” But, Jim cautioned, “he has time and time again roared back into the newsrooms because he sees a need.”

That’s true. And Rupert’s mother lived to age 103. But time will eventually catch up with him, just like it did for the supposedly “immortal” Sumner Redstone. What happens then is most interesting to me. The family trust provides that the Murdoch assets—yes, including Fox News—will pass to Rupert’s four adult children equally, and they will need to figure it out. Lachlan previously offered to buy the shares owned by his siblings, none of whom have an active role at the company, but that never happened. “When Rupert passes, should Prue, Elisabeth and James still feel like this is a product they want nothing to do with, do they then say to Lachlan, ‘Buy us out,’?” Rutenberg pondered. “Or do they form a new triumvirate and vote Lachlan out.” That would be an outcome worthy of Succession

What do you think will happen to TBS, TNT and TruTV as a result of the WarnerMedia acquisition by Discovery? 

That’s a good question, especially considering that the Turner networks still generate billions in revenue per year. And while CNN garners most of the attention, the other linear entertainment outlets of Warner Bros. Discovery will generate most of the company’s cash while investors and the media focus on the streaming future. It’s both an ATM and a legacy anchor for WBD as it takes on Netflix and Disney.    

Most believe that Kathleen Finch, the executive in charge of the networks, who came to Discovery three years ago in its Scripps acquisition, will streamline the TV operation (meaning fire people and share resources), and run the Turner networks more like the low-cost Discovery outlets. They’ll be filled with cheap and repeatable reality programming, fewer scripted dramas like Snowpiercer (TNT) or comedies like Chad (TBS), and supplemented with syndicated reruns and sports. Turner was already moving in that direction pre-merger, as AT&T shifted its premium content resources to HBO Max.

But don’t underestimate the sports angle at Turner. NBA basketball, MLB baseball, NHL hockey, and NCAA college hoops are now the audience driver, with the pricey rights deals that entails, and that focus is expected to get a boost from Discovery, which is looking for a global sports executive to grow its big footprint overseas and the Turner content in the U.S. Whoever that is will likely push the Turner nets even further into sports identities, both to maintain carriage fees and advertising, as entertainment originals decrease but don’t entirely disappear. Look for sports to be the big message when Jon Steinlauf, the head of U.S. advertising sales, hosts the combined company’s first TV upfront on May 18 in New York.

Now that the box office seems to be coming back, what was the biggest bomb of the pandemic? And who lost the most on it?

That’s gotta be Moonfall, the Halle Berry moon-crashing-into-Earth opus from director Roland Emmerich. It cost $140 million to make, tens of millions more to market, and grossed just $19 million domestic in February via Lionsgate, $43 million worldwide. Plus—and this is key—there was no streaming deal to fall back on. That’s the thing: It’s impossible to say with certainty which pandemic movies lost the most, because so many were directed to streaming, or debuted at home day-and-date. Some of the Warner Bros. 2021 movies tanked in theaters—like Hugh Jackman’s Reminiscence, for instance, which grossed just $16 million worldwide and cost $60 million—but when I talked to outgoing WarnerMedia C.E.O. Jason Kilar recently, he insisted that Reminiscence actually did fine thanks to the HBO Max numbers. I guess…

So let’s exclude movies that also debuted on streaming. According to distribution sources, Moonfall probably failed enough to out-bomb Lionsgate’s own Chaos Walking, Doug Liman’s delayed-then-dumped Tom Holland sci-fi drama, which grossed just $24 million worldwide on a $100 million budget; or some of the Fox leftovers that Disney inherited, like Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel ($30 million worldwide; $100 million budget), New Mutants ($49 million worldwide; $80 million budget); or Paramount’s Snake Eyes ($40 million worldwide; $90 million budget).

As for who lost what on Moonfall, it’s murky. Emmerich’s company, Centropolis, raised independent financing for the film with AGC Studios, the entity run by veteran sales agent/producer Stuart Ford. Lionsgate put about $11 million into production and spent about $30 million to release it domestically, per sources. The Chinese firm Huayi Brothers reportedly invested $40 million (interesting because the film hasn’t received a China release yet), and both CAA Media Finance and a company in Emmerich’s native Germany kicked in unknown amounts. The rest is a mystery, and nobody is talking, which shows how opaque the losses can be on indie films. Territory-by-territory pre-sales generate millions, of course, and random sovereign funds (or extremely high net worth individuals) could also be involved.  If so, many different rich people could find themselves on the hook for this stinker, which just means they won’t get to talk about Moonfall at cocktail parties.   

Whatever happened to the Jeopardy! guy, Mike Richards? I remember you saying he was settling out with Sony but he hasn’t popped up anywhere. Does he now have to go away forever because of some bad comments on a podcast?

Richards is actually still negotiating his exit from Sony TV, I’m told, but he’s finally nearing a deal. If you remember, Richards was named the replacement for Alex Trebek, then lost the gig, and eventually his role as executive producer of both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, when old podcasts emerged featuring sexist language. He hired litigator Bryan Freedman, who is also handling Chris Cuomo’s messy CNN exit (look for news next week on that front). Freedman has been trying to get Richards a consulting role or some other gig within Sony TV, rather than just a payout. We’ll see if that happens.    

Who do you think is getting the NFL Sunday Ticket package? Amazon, Apple, Disney or will DirecTV step up to keep it?

My sources say it’s Apple’s to lose, at this point. (One source told me this weekend that the deal is actually done and is being kept quiet at Apple’s request, which I haven’t confirmed and don’t know for a fact; Apple isn’t commenting.) That would make sense: Even after winning top Emmys and the best picture Oscar, C.E.O. Tim Cook has said Apple is merely in its early days of premium video, and nothing is more premium than NFL football. Plus, it would explain Apple’s recent foray into live events and advertising with MLB games. (Note to Apple: Your baseball broadcasters are bush league; no way will the NFL tolerate a C-level crew.) 

Whoever gets the Sunday Ticket deal after this coming season will pay way more than the $1.5 billion a year that DirecTV shells out. Most believe the cost will be in the $2.5 billion range, which eliminates all but the deepest-pocketed buyers, and probably strikes the struggling DirecTV,  too. Disney and Amazon already have exclusive NFL packages, so that leaves Apple, and the NFL likes spreading its rights around so everyone is invested in its success.   

Speaking of the NFL, The Athletic revealed this week that the league is exploring its own streaming service, dubbed NFL+. I’m told it would likely be $5 a month and would include some out of market games. That’s smart, but it also would take some of the value out of Sunday Ticket, catering to middle-tier fans who want more than the local broadcasts but don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for everything. 

Here’s a fun thought experiment: What if the NFL eventually took back all its games, totally scorned its broadcast partners, and instead put the league on a suite of its own streaming channels, charging fans via tiered pricing for various game packages, producing the telecasts and selling the ads itself, and capturing all the value while putting the television networks out of business. I know, it’ll never happen,  or at least not until the streaming market is mature. But you know some McKinsey analyst has that deck in his or her laptop, just waiting for the moment to present it to Roger Goodell. NFL+ would instantly become one of the most valuable media properties in the world.  

Did you see A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once has been released in Russia? I thought the U.S. studios were boycotting after the Ukraine invasion.

Yes, Everything Everywhere is available in about 800 theaters in Russia. But no, A24 didn’t release the hit Michelle Yeoh action-adventure there. The private equity-backed indie film outfit sold off the territory to Volga Film, a Russia distributor, well before Putin invaded Ukraine. That’s pretty common for U.S.-focusedfilm companies. I’m told A24 actually advised the Volga guys against releasing it now, but the film is in its second weekend there and has grossed $354,145, according to   

Are you an Easter ham or turkey guy?

Turkey. Ham is gross.