NEW YORK (Reuters) - It’s being whispered in the corridors of News Corp and on Wall Street: might the next chief executive of this global media empire actually not carry the last name Murdoch?
As News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal escalates in Britain, insiders and investors are privately discussing how badly the crisis could taint 80-year-old Rupert Murdoch’s presumed heir apparent, James.
The once unthinkable idea that a non-Murdoch could be appointed CEO is looking more plausible now, and the spotlight is shining on Chase Carey, News Corp’s deputy chairman with the trademark handlebar mustache.
The 23-year News Corp veteran and long-time lieutenant of Murdoch senior would be first in line for CEO if James Murdoch needs to be sidelined, even if on an interim basis, said people inside and outside the company.
“I’m a big fan of Chase. He’s a very skilled financial guy,” said Larry Haverty, portfolio manager at Gabelli Multimedia Funds, which holds News Corp shares. “If James has to do something else, which I hope doesn’t happen, I have tremendous confidence in Chase running the company,” said Haverty, who has known Carey for more than 20 years.
It has long been expected that Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls News Corp with 40 percent of voting shares, would hand the reins over to one of his adult children.
The promotion of his youngest son James, 38, to the role of deputy chief operating officer in March seemed to make it all but official that he was the anointed successor.
But the fallout from the scandal at News International, the British newspaper unit that ultimately reported to the younger Murdoch, could harm his near-term prospects.
If Carey, 57, was appointed CEO, it could hasten the separation of News International from the rest of the company, a move that investors have been calling for, since Carey has no love of newspapers, unlike the Murdochs.
Some on Wall Street say privately that if Carey was promoted, it could help reduce the so-called Murdoch discount — a reason that News Corp shares trade at around 7.3 times estimated 2012 earnings, below peers such as Walt Disney Co and Viacom Inc which trade at 8.5 and 8.8 times earnings, respectively.
Yet investors say Rupert Murdoch will likely be in charge for some time, despite his age and the deepening crisis in Britain. They say it could still blow over in time for a seamless transition to the next generation of Murdochs.
One top 10 News Corp shareholder, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Rupert will run the company until he absolutely no longer can.
“You can’t nudge Rupert out of the post. Some executives just aren’t nudgeable,” the shareholder said.
Carey, a Harvard Business School alum and New York Yankees baseball fan, has become one of Rupert Murdoch’s most trusted lieutenants since he replaced former deputy Peter Chernin in July 2009.
Carey is described by those who have worked with him as a practical, no-nonsense, results-focused executive. “A CFO in business leader’s clothing,” said one News Corp insider.
The person, who asked not be identified, said managers who report to Carey are never worried about what he thinks of their work so long as they surpass set targets.
He is said to have little time for indulging in so-called visionary projects — a contrast to his boss, who has gone against the grain to pursue investments or acquisitions not favored by investors.
Carey joined News Corp’s Fox Entertainment Group in 1988 from Columbia Pictures. He held various roles including co-chief operating officer for News Corp until Murdoch in 2003 appointed him as chief executive of DirecTV Group, which was then controlled by News Corp.
In his six years running the leading U.S. satellite TV operator, he grew the business to the number two US pay-TV company.
Carey briefly worked under another media mogul John Malone, after Murdoch swapped his stake in DirecTV for Malone’s News Corp holding.
“Chase is the consummate media executive,” said Greg Maffei, Chief Executive of Malone’s Liberty Media Corp. “He drove DirecTV to a video leadership position with timely investments in HD and sports,” said Maffei.
Another person close to Carey, both in business and outside work, said he already effectively runs News Corp.
“He is very capable,” said the person who asked not to be identified as he did not have permission to speak on business relationships. “Look what he did for DirectTV. He was the one who put the entire Fox Television business together. He was head of strategic planning on a lot of these deals.”
Since Carey has been back at News Corp, whose U.S. assets are primarily programing, he has made the transition from negotiating for the lowest programing fees at DirecTV to demanding the highest fees for Fox.
In particular, he pushed for cable operators to cough up higher fees to carry free-to-air Fox broadcast signals. His tough stance led to millions of New Yorkers missing the first two games of Major League Baseball’s World Series last October, when cable operator Cablevision Systems Corp balked at the higher fees.
Carey’s latest focus is on getting Fox affiliate stations to cut News Corp a share of the retransmission fees they get from U.S. cable operators.
Reporting by Yinka Adegoke, additional reporting by Nadia Damouni and Sarah McBride; Editing by Tiffany Wu, Bernard Orr