Will James Murdoch lead Fox to a digital future?

21st Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch attends a Keynote during MIPCOM at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France, Oct. 13, 2014.
Tony Barson | FilmMagic | Getty Images
21st Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch attends a Keynote during MIPCOM at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France, Oct. 13, 2014.

Media giant 21st Century Fox built its empire on television and movies. But, as the world moves increasingly toward a digital media landscape, traditional mass media companies need to evolve to stay relevant and in business.

And some experts believe James Murdoch could be the one to make those changes for Fox.

On Thursday, CNBC reported that sources close to the situation said Rupert Murdoch would soon step down as chief executive officer and controlling shareholder of 21st Century Fox. The mantle would be passed to son James Murdoch, who would handle the day-to-day management of the mass media empire with help from his older brother Lachlan and his father.

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James has already shown leadership in moving the company toward a digital-leaning future. For example, it is believed James is the one who convinced Rupert to invest in Vice Media, said NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who wrote the book "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." Folkenflik said James has also showed interest in appealing to younger demographics, including investing in hip-hop label Rawkus Records, which launched the careers of Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

"He's shown some initiative and some charm," Folkenflik said. "He's different from his father, and doesn't particularly agree with him ideologically."

Fox declined to comment and turned down requests for an interview with James Murdoch.

The youngest Murdoch son has been outspoken about his belief that digital media is the future. Deadline reported that at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in December 2014, James told investors that the pay TV was no longer the best model for consumers.

Instead, he spoke highly of streaming video platforms like Hulu and authenticated video on demand, adding these options offer more viewer customization. What's more, James was integral in Fox's purchase in 2014 of digital advertising firm TrueX.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who has a 6.6 percent voting stake in Fox, praised James' digital chops to Reuters in April. Alwaleed spoke especially highly of James embracing digital media.

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Have to wait and see what James Murdoch's vision is: Pro
Have to wait and see what James Murdoch's vision is: Pro   

Currently, some sources say Fox isn't thought of as a digital media leader. One media buyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said while Fox does have some video on-demand options, partial ownership of Hulu and content apps like FX Now, the company hasn't really made major moves to convince marketers to invest ad dollars in its digital media properties.

Digital advertising and media analyst Rebecca Lieb disagreed slightly, pointing out some of Fox's successful digital publication initiatives like The Wall Street Journal's online presence. But, she agreed that it'll need to move more toward embracing digital media to continue to thrive.

"They're going to have to be digitally forward," she said, "With HBO decoupled from television and Amazon and Netflix formidable competitors, no traditional broadcast or cable company can remain the same. The idea of television programming and content is so rapidly being decoupled from the television set and television delivery system."

Despite James' track record, the media buyer was skeptical that putting him in charge would impact anything in the short term, especially when it came to the ongoing 2015-16 Fox upfront sales, the period where advertising is sold by television networks. They were also cautious on major changes for the future, considering Rupert would still retain his executive chairman status.

Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group, also doubted James' reported takeover would affect the immediate upfront market. Wieser said though that James had the experience to continue a legacy of entrepreneurship at Fox due to the fact that he "had his ear to the ground on technology more than most people at a similar level in their organizations," the analyst felt for the most part Fox's media business would stay the same.

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"I think that this will generally represent continuity, if less 'sentimentality' around certain aspects of Fox and News Corp.'s legacy, investments in print for example," Wieser said.

Folkenflik said the most immediate change will be the loss of control for the non-Murdochs at Fox, especially President and Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey. Some expected Carey to take over after Rupert, but sources said he will be vacating his role at the company to move into an undisclosed position through May 2016.

In addition, Fox News President Roger Ailes' contract is up in mid-2016, meaning that James may be able to flex more power.

Folkenflik said James' appointment signifies Rupert's desire to keep Fox a family business, despite the fact his son had been tainted with News of the World phone hacking scandal. (James stepped down from being the executive chairman of Fox's British newspaper business and later chairman of BSkyB after the incident.)

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"James has earned some decent reviews in this current phase after some real wariness," Folkenflik said. "But, even with some decent reviews, it's different to be a CEO with a Murdoch name and to lead essentially without adult supervision."

He added the decision not only shows Rupert's faith in his younger son, but it solidifies the family dynasty.

"Most publicly traded companies aren't treated this way," Folkenflik said. "This place, more than most, there's a concentration of ownership and voting shares that allows the Murdoch family to act as one."