NEW YORK (Reuters) - News Corp is taking a risk in putting boss Rupert Murdoch, famous for his off-script comments, on the media conglomerate’s quarterly earnings call on Wednesday with succession questions sure to be asked.
Murdoch, 80, will be speaking to Wall Street for the first time since the phone hacking scandal in Britain, and the issue of succession planning at the global media empire is certain to be raised, according to people familiar with the company.
It will be Murdoch’s first appearance on an earnings conference call since last August, and Wall Street wants to know if he is any more willing to hand over the CEO reins to trusted lieutenant Chase Carey, currently deputy chairman.
The issue of succession has come to the fore since Murdoch, chairman and chief executive, appeared overwhelmed at a British parliamentary hearing last month on the hacking tactics of his now-closed News of the World paper.
At the heart of the issue is whether Murdoch’s son and heir apparent James has been too badly tainted by the scandal at the British tabloid, which ultimately reported to him as head of News Corp’s European businesses.
There are also questions about the veracity of the younger Murdoch’s testimony to British lawmakers, which may yet do his reputation and succession hopes more harm.
“There is an understanding internally with senior management that the succession question has become an issue,” said a person familiar with internal discussions ahead of a News Corp board meeting on Tuesday.
Larry Haverty of Gabelli Multimedia Funds — who owns 195,000 Class A shares and 40,000 Class B shares of News Corp — said the company would benefit from “ring-fencing this scandal.”
Rupert Murdoch is expected to acknowledge some of the recent troubles in his prepared remarks, but he will not issue a new ‘mea culpa’ like the one he gave to the British parliament, according to the person familiar with the planning. The source was not permitted to talk publicly on the matter.
The conference call will take place after a board meeting on Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Collins Stewart analyst Thomas Eagan said investors he spoke with were very focused on succession questions.
“It would be helpful for him to lay out a strategy and we need to hear more about Chase Carey,” Eagan said. “Could they break up the chairman and chief executive roles?”
Carey, the News Corp chief operating officer, is respected by investors and analysts as a skilled operator who keeps the company running as the senior Murdoch focuses on pet projects.
The quarterly results themselves are expected to be solid, boosted by the performance of News Corp’s U.S. cable and broadcast television networks.
Analysts, on average, forecast quarterly profit of 29 cents a share, versus 33 cents a year ago, on revenue growth of 4.3 percent to $8.46 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The company will likely try to focus Wednesday’s conference call on its financials, but it is unlikely to ever get away from the scandal even as its British newspaper unit is responsible for less than 5 percent of operating profits.
Murdoch is known for making off-the-cuff comments, such as when he told analysts that News Corp intended to make the website of the Wall Street Journal free. He made the comments before a full business analysis, which ultimately concluded that WSJ.com should remain a paid site.
“If Murdoch’s on the call, it will help more than it will hurt,” said Standard & Poor’s equity analyst Tuna Amobi. “He can speak with the best authority on the succession plan.”
Since the controversy, News Corp’s corporate governance has been put under a microscope — particularly its board, which has been criticized for being too cozy with the Murdochs.
Under the leadership of independent director Viet Dinh, the board has tried to change the perception that it is crammed with family members and corporate insiders. On Friday, Dinh announced that Murdoch’s daughter Elizabeth would not be joining the board as had previously been planned.
Some analysts expect the board to authorize another increase in News Corp’s dividend, following the July 12 lifting of its share buyback program to $5 billion.
“I think the board will likely be more proactive than they have been in asking for additional capital allocation, possibly an increase in dividend yield, which is currently just 1 percent. Time Warner Inc is around 3 percent while Walt Disney Co is around 1.14 percent,” said Collins Stewart’s Eagan.
Reporting by Yinka Adegoke, editing by Tiffany Wu, Gary Hill