Two News Corps Mean Double the Murdoch

Are two News Corps (NASDAQ:NWSA) better than one? Perhaps.

Splitting Rupert Murdoch’s media empire would answer the concerns of critics who have long advocated that the tycoon split off the slow-growing publishing business — which he loves and they hate — from the fast-growing entertainment business, which they (both) love. The one problem is that it would be double the Murdoch drama, which may not be a good thing.

The Australian-born billionaire has run his media empire as he damn well pleases for decades. Of course, he has had his share of hits, but there have been misses as well, such as the disastrous MySpace deal, which News Corp. unloaded last year at a huge loss.

Murdoch also paid a 67% premium for Dow Jones in 2007 at a time when no one else was interested in buying the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, among many other titles. Though Dow Jones is a bright spot in the dreary publishing business, the evidence suggests that Murdoch overpaid for it.

Though the idea is similar to the split of Sumner Redstone’s Viacom (NASDAQ:VIA, NASDAQ:VIAB) empire, CNBC’s David Faber noted this morning a few differences. The media and entertainment business at News Corp. has been propping up the publishing business for years. That wasn’t the case with CBS and Viacom, which split in 2009. If News Corp. splits, the crown jewels (2othw Century Fox, The Fox News Channel) would be split off from its dogs such as the newspapers, including its scandal-plagued U.K. papers, along with the HarperCollins book publishing business.

The “good” assets account for 75% of the $25.34 billion in revenue for the first nine months of the fiscal year and 90% of the operating profit. Excluding a one-time charge, the publishing business reported a $31 million decrease in third-quarter operating income. That’s why it’s not surprising that news of the potential split is pushing News Corp. shares to a four-year high, to around $21.50 (up some 6%) on Tuesday morning.

But investors better be careful about what they wish for.

Left unsaid are what roles the Murdoch children, with whom their father is sometimes estranged, would have in the new companies. Chase Carey, News Corp.’s well-regarded chief operating officer, seems like the natural choice to run the “good assets.”

Regardless, the media and entertainment business has its share of challenges. News Corp.’s movie business hasn’t had a good year in 2012. According to Box Office Mojo, 20th Century Fox has an 8.9% share of the box office so far this year. Only one Fox film, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, is in the top 10. News Corp. also isn’t immune to the recent declines in cable ratings though Fox News continues to lead the cable news channels by far, as it has for years.

If the split occurs, the weaknesses in the publishing business would become even more glaring. The company owns “3 national news brands in the U.K.” and 150 “brands” in Australia, positions that on the face of it seem excessive, especially given concerns that the U.K. economic outlook is worsening.

The New York Post has reportedly been marginally profitable for years. A few years ago, the Post and archrival New York Daily News reportedly considered combining some operations to save money. Perhaps, News Corp. was able to realize some economies of scale when it acquired the Journal, but it may not be significant. The book publishing business faces a tough road ahead, too, as sales of physical books continue to plunge and publisher keep losing control of content.

Were it not for the continued publicity surrounding the U.K. hacking incident, it’s doubtful that Murdoch would dismantle the company he spent his career building, In the end, though, it’s the right long-term decision for shareholders, though the way forward is far from smooth.

–Jonathan Berr is long CBS. Follow him on Twitter @Jdberr.

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