Diller was born in San Francisco in 1942 but his parents moved to southern California and he spent his childhood in Beverly Hills. His father worked in construction. “He was lucky,” he says, “to be in that business at that time after the second world war when all the veterans were coming home.” His father’s company “essentially built the San Fernando Valley,” on the other side of the hill from Los Angeles. “All those lovely tract homes,” he says, grimacing, slightly. ... Los Angeles, he says, “has utterly no stimulus of any kind” and as a young man it took him a while to work out what he wanted to do in life. “The truth is I was kind of in hibernation until I was 19. I was cosseted [and] would have stayed with [my parents] until now, if I could have.” He went to UCLA where he lasted “literally, three weeks” before dropping out. “I wasn’t interested or stimulated . . . I was just a dope.” ... Then an actor who was the father of a friend set him up with a job in the mailroom at William Morris, the talent agency where Diller’s fellow media mogul David Geffen also got his break. “I woke up,” Diller says. “It was the first time I’d been curious about anything.” ... He immersed himself in the industry. “I spent three years reading the file room. I basically read the history of the entertainment business from A-Z.” He became a junior agent but a serendipitous turn of events took him to the east coast when he landed a job working for a mid-level executive at ABC. “The day I got the job, they fired the tsar of all ABC programming, reached down and picked my guy. So, instead of being the assistant to a mid-level person in Los Angeles, I moved to New York.” Within six months Diller was running the programming department.
The brothers oversee an enviable collection of businesses — a movie studio, cable channels and a publishing house worth a combined $62bn. But that does not mean they have nothing to worry about. Their newspapers have been walloped by an industry-wide collapse in print advertising, while Fox’s television networks are grappling with the “cord-cutting” phenomenon — the cancellation of pricey cable subscriptions by a generation that prefers binge-watching on demand. For owners of channels such as Fox that means fewer viewers and pressure on advertising. ... The competition is also beefing up. Time Warner, one of Fox’s main rivals and the owner of HBO, CNN and Warner Bros, has agreed a blockbuster $85.4bn sale to AT&T, which will create a giant that dwarfs Fox. If it is cleared by regulators, the combined company will be able to deliver Time Warner movies and TV programming direct to more than 160 million AT&T customers around the US — something Fox is currently unable to do. ... Add these challenges to the scrutiny and opposition that their Sky deal will generate and the younger Murdochs find themselves in a challenging environment. Their father overcame considerable obstacles to become the world’s most influential media mogul, battling political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic and making risky bets along the way, buying The Sun, launching Sky and Fox News, to name but three. The question now facing James and Lachlan is this: do they have what it takes to fill his shoes?