All Rupert, All the Time?

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Rupert Murdoch chairman and CEO of News Corporation, tosses a football

One of these days, we'll order our movies, our music, our TV shows, over an Internet that courses through our homes like running water. And in that infrastructure race among media companies to own as many pipes as possible, there are cable people — AOL Time Warner (owner of this reporter), AT&T, Comcast — there are DSL people (the Baby Bells), and there are satellite people, who want to beam everything down to you from an eye in the sky.

Increasingly, that's looking like Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch's News Corp. is making serious headway in its talks to acquire what Murdoch considers the missing piece in his global media empire: DirecTV and its 10 million U.S. subscribers, currently owned by Hughes Electronics (which is in turn owned by General Motors, which makes more sense if you think of Hughes as what it used to be — a defense contractor).

The deal, as it's taking shape, is complicated. First, GM would spin off Hughes into a separate company, which would then be merged with News Corp.'s own satellite unit, Sky Global Networks. The resulting company would be majority-owned by new Hughes shareholders (currently, the company is merely a tracking stock) but controlled by News Corp. by virtue of its largest-shareholder 36 percent stake, giving Murdoch control over the day-to-day operations. (There are some other potential machinations, including a $4 billion investment by Microsoft, but with the deal weeks away from even glimpsing the finish line, there's really no point in getting into them here.)

Still a boutique business

At present, of course, the phone-line/cable-line/satellite race for world market share is far from won. And 10 million subscribers makes DirecTV the biggest satellite TV provider in the U.S. but still a boutique business when it comes to all the TV sets in the land. But Murdoch, whose slate of Fox TV products currently rides the backs of rival delivery systems, is eagerly looking for a friendly platform from which he can pump as many Fox channels into American homes — with their due dose of placement and promotion — as he can dream up. And DirecTV fits that bill.

Sky Global Networks already has some impressive toeholds around the globe, including prickly customers such as China, and the Hughes people are very optimistic about the growth potential in underdeveloped foreign markets like Latin America, where satellite TV's lack of infrastructure requirements give it a head start on the lumbering cable-line folk.

If the deal goes through, we'll see what Murdoch can do to bring DirecTV closer to the American mainstream. From a consumer perspective, it already delivers more channels, from more places, than can be dreamed of, but it's a bit on the expensive side and isn't always available in big-city urban thickets. More Fox channels won't necessarily make it more attractive, but Murdoch's considerable marketing muscle might.

Hey, when the day comes when everything's downloadable and "Simpsons" reruns are available for laptop viewing, count me in for an eye in the sky.