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Rupert Murdoch seeks to add $14 billion crown jewel, British Sky, to Fox empire

Rupert Murdoch seeks to add $14 billion crown jewel, British Sky, to Fox empire
Rupert Murdoch arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in West Hollywood on March 2, 2014. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez / AFP/Getty Images)

Five years after abandoning its bid for a British crown jewel amid a corporate scandal, Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox is making another run for full control of Sky, the European pay-TV giant.

Fox on Friday disclosed its $14.1 billion offer for Sky, saying the company had agreed in principal to pay stockholders 10.75 British pounds for each share of Sky that Fox currently does not own. Sky is based in London.

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The New York-based Murdoch family-controlled media company has long had ambitions to control Sky, Britain's satellite pay-television juggernaut that boasts exclusive rights to soccer and other sporting events. Sky also sells broadband Internet service, an online streaming plan and a Sky-branded phone service.

Fox currently holds a 39.1% interest in Sky, but Murdoch and his sons are determined to consolidate Fox's ownership.

"A proposed transaction between 21st Century Fox and Sky would bring together 21st Century Fox's global content business with Sky's world-class direct-to-consumer capabilities, which have made it the No. 1 premium pay-TV provider in all its markets," Fox said in a statement.

The bid values Sky at $23 billion. Fox cautioned there was no certainty that the transaction would occur. Under British law, Fox must finalize its deal with Sky's board within 28 days.

Fox’s proposed purchase comes at a good time as the U.S. dollar is particularly strong, following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a move known as “Brexit.” 

Fox has $3.8 billion cash on hand. The move also would help Fox diversify its revenue as its main source of profit — cable affiliate fees — is threatened because of cord-cutting in the U.S. In addition, cable TV ratings for sports and entertainment channels have been down, leading to lower ad revenue.

"The deal would not only be an accretive use of the current cash holdings of Fox, but more importantly continue to diversify the company away from U.S. cable advertising," Stifel media analyst Benjamin Mogil wrote in a report.

Fox Chief Executive James Murdoch ran Sky from 2003 to 2007. Now the scion, along with his brother, Lachlan Murdoch, manage all of Fox, with their 85-year-old father. James Murdoch also is chairman of Sky, a position he regained earlier this year.

Fox, then known as News Corp., made its first attempt to buy Sky in 2010 for $12 billion, but pulled back following revelations that reporters and operatives for its London tabloids had hacked into cellphone messages left for members of the Royal family, celebrities such as Hugh Grant and even crime victims.

This week's deal — which must be approved by the European Union — represents how far Murdoch and his sons have come to repair their reputation after the phone hacking scandal, which was hugely costly to their company.

In 2011, James Murdoch was forced to resign as chairman of Sky, the company shuttered the News of the World tabloid and abandoned its bid for Sky. Critics figured James Murdoch's career was doomed because he had been running Fox's operations in Britain.

Rupert and James Murdoch appeared before members of Britain's Parliament as the furor grew in Britain over the company's ethical lapses, including hacking the cellphone of a young murder victim, Milly Dowler. Her parents harbored false hopes the 13-year-old was alive after realizing that someone had listened to phone messages left for her. Rupert Murdoch personally apologized to the family.

The Sky deal has echoes of a pending major U.S. merger, AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner Inc. Two years ago, Fox also tried to buy Time Warner but withdrew its offer when its stock began to slide. Fox executives have long maintained that not owning all of Sky was the biggest hole in the company’s portfolio.

Fox is hoping to glean consumer insights from Sky's customers to expand globally.

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"It is certainly clear that the user experience is kind of a dimension of competition that is really important and we look at," James Murdoch said last month during an earnings call. Sky has been able to create "a user experience that's really second to none I think globally," he said.

UPDATES:

2:15 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:25 a.m.

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