LOS ANGELES — Rupert Murdoch's decision to close the 168-year-old weekly British tabloid at the center of a phone-hacking scandal is an example of what the controlling shareholder of News Corp. does best — seize the news agenda, and when necessary, cut his losses.
He's also got his eye on a much bigger prize.
Analysts say the surprisingly bold move to shutter News of the World, a financial pipsqueak, is the best possible way to stem the flow of damaging headlines at rival newspapers and clear regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of New Corp.s' pending multi-billion-dollar acquisition of British Sky Broadcasting, a cash cow that will boost earnings of the media giant.
News of the World, accused of hacking into the phones of regular citizens, is "a drop in the bucket" compared to News Corp.'s overall $46 billion market capitalization, said Collins Stewart analyst Thomas Eagan.
He pegged the tabloid's value at an optimistic $650 million, or 25 cents per share. That's far less than the 66 cents that News Corp. shares have fallen since Wednesday when it was revealed the tabloid hacked into the voicemail of a murdered girl, potentially harming a police investigation, and jeopardizing the company's proposed takeover of BSkyB.
"I think it assuages some of the concern over ongoing problems at 'News of the World,'" Eagan said. "It's unclear what it means for the actual (BSkyB) deal approval. But I would think that it would tend to assuage some of the concern."
The British government on June 30 already gave its qualified approval, allowing News Corp. to purchase the 61 percent of BSkyB that it doesn't already own, on the condition it spins off Sky News as a separate company.
News Corp. made an initial offer of 700 pence per share to buy the 61 percent of the shares it doesn't already hold, valuing BSkyB at 12.3 billion pounds ($19.8 billion).
Analysts believe News Corp. may have to go as high as 900 pence per share to persuade shareholders to sell out.
At the time of the qualified approval, the tabloid's headline-grabbing hacks appeared to be limited to celebrities and politicians, to whom it was prepared to pay compensation.
But public sentiment was inflamed anew after it was revealed this week that the paper's targets included missing children, the relatives of soldiers slain in Afghanistan and the families of victims of London's 2005 terror attacks.
The outrage prompted the U.K. media regulatory body, the Office of Communications, to release an unusual statement on Thursday, confirming that "it has a duty to be satisfied on an ongoing basis that the holder of a broadcasting license is 'fit and proper.'"
An investigation into whether News Corp. would pass this subjective standard of propriety was seen as potentially derailing Murdoch's BSkyB bid.
"You don't even want that question being posed if you're a media business do you?" said Louise Cooper, a markets analyst at London-based BGC Partners. "This is, to me, Murdoch taking back control."
Analysts see the BSkyB deal approval being delayed until at least September, as Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt is not expected to give his final go-ahead before the U.K. Parliament goes into recess on July 18.
Despite the public outcry, many analysts think Britain will still sanction the takeover, since officials have already said that threats to competition will be resolved with Sky News' spin-off.
"Concern about media plurality is essentially done with," said analyst Eagan.
Shutting a newspaper amid an industry-wide decline in print advertising revenue and increasing its stake in a profitable and expanding pay TV company will actually improve News Corp.'s profitability, analysts said.
Most have a "buy" rating on the shares, thanks in part to an improving TV ad market, the recent decision to sell off money-losing social network Myspace, and its thriving cable channels such as Fox News.
Its TV and movie businesses accounted for practically all of the company's $1.06 billion in operating profits in the third quarter through March. The publishing division containing newspapers contributed $36 million, or less than 3 percent of the total, while Myspace and related Internet businesses lost $165 million.
News Corp. shares were flat at $17.47 on Thursday after the paper's closure was announced.
"At some point when the smoke clears, we're optimistic that investors will ultimately return to analyzing News Corp. on the merits of its high quality media business, which first and foremost include its TV businesses," said Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente.
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