You’re Rupert Murdoch and assessing life after shelling out $A6 billion or so for the Wall Street Journal.

The early ratings are in for the first 2008 ep of American Idol. Good news and bad. Which is not want you want really. After all you are still trying to focus on an analyst’s report explaining why the collapse of the circulation of the Sun, your London tabloid cashcow, to below 3 million a day is good news. You just can’t see it, even though the cover price was cut.

Focus on the bad news first. The early Nielsen ratings numbers for Tuesday night show that 33.2 million people watched Idol’s return. That was more than the combined audience of the other four free to air TV networks, but around 4.4 million down on the 2007 debut for the start of the sixth series.

And, the 33.2 million was in fact the lowest debut audience for four years. The audience seems to be tuning out of Idol, just as they have done elsewhere (such as in Australia on the Ten Network). The audience fell 13% in the most important US TV demographic, the 18 to 49.

Which takes us to The Sun. Why did The Sun’s sales slip under three million a day for the first time in 33 years in December?

Well, the figures show that sales of all British papers were off 2.5% in 2007, with the Fin Times growing 2.6% because international sales growth is more than making up for easing UK sales.

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations in Britain, The Sun’s sales fell, as did those of the Daily Mirror and the News of the World: Murdoch’s major UK tabloid Sunday and the one whose purchase made him a person to watch in Fleet Street years ago. The News’ sales could also fall under 3 million each week soon if we don’t watch out, Rupe mused.

The Sun’s sales fell 3% in December to 2.99 million a day, despite slashing its cover price in London and Scotland to 20 pence (40 US cents) from 35p. The paper sold 4.3 million copies a day in 1988, so it has shed around a quarter of its sales since that peak.

Almost all Sunday newspapers dropped in circulation, some by more than 10% and Murdoch’s The Sunday Times, whose profits compensate for its weekday sister title The Times’ losses, lost 5% in 2007.

Sales of free newspapers — including three general and one business-targeted in London — grew by 17%: a sign of the times?

Not according to Rebekah Wade, the editor of The Sun newspaper, who said on Tuesday that the rise of giveaway titles and the demise of local vendors were hurting sales, but she ruled out making the paper free to combat falling circulation.

In evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating UK media ownership and news, Reuters reported her as saying “We would never give away The Sun for free.” She also told the House of Lords Communications Committee that she would not stop her tabloid from running a daily picture of a topless woman on page three.

“I think page three is very popular with bishops,” she said in response to a question from the Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, adding that if he wanted to meet one of the models, all he had to do was ask.

All this comes at a time when the share prices of News Corp and its major US rivals, such as Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and CBS are at or near 12 month lows as investors suggest they will be hit hard in the ad downturn that is certain to follow the slowing US economy. Murdoch is exposed to the slowing UK economy and the circulation slump in his London papers.

This all makes the strains of that big purchase price for the Journal that much more to bear for the rest of the empire. How much longer before we hear of cost cuts at News Ltd in Australia?

Peter Fray

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