The Global Media System
Prior to the eighties and nineties, national media systems were typified by domestically owned radio, television and newspaper industries. There were major import markets for films, TV shows, music and books, and these markets tended to be dominated by U.S. based firms. But local commercial interests, sometimes combined with a state-affiliated broadcasting service, predominated within the media system. All of this is changing, and changing rapidly. Whereas previously media systems were primarily national, in the past few years a global commercial-media market has emerged. To grasp media today and in the future, one must start with understanding the global system and then factor in differences at the national and local levels. “What you are seeing,” says Christopher Dixon, media analyst for the investment firm PaineWebber, “is the creation of a global oligopoly. It happened to the oil and automotive industries earlier this century; now it is happening to the entertainment industry.”
This global oligopoly has two distinct but related facets. First, it means the dominant firms—nearly all U.S. based—are moving across the planet at breakneck speed. The point is to capitalize on the potential for growth abroad—and not get outflanked by competitors—since the U.S. market is well developed and only permits incremental expansion. As Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone has put it, “Companies are focusing on those markets promising the best return, which means overseas.” Frank Biondi, former chairman of Vivendi’s Universal Studios, asserts that “99 percent of the success of these companies long-term is going to be successful execution offshore.”
The dominant media firms increasingly view themselves as global entities. Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff bristled when, in 1998, some said it was improper for a German firm to control 15 percent of both the U.S. book-publishing and music markets. “We’re not foreign. We’re international,” Middelhoff said. “I’m an American with a German passport.” In 2000 Middelhoff proclaimed that Bertelsmann was no longer a German company. “We are really the most global media company.” Likewise, AOL-Time Warner’s Gerald Levin stated, “We do not want to be viewed as an American company. We think globally.”
Second, convergence and consolidation are the order of the day. Specific media industries are becoming more and more concentrated, and the dominant players in each media industry increasingly are subsidiaries of huge global media conglomerates. For one small example, the U.S. market for educational publishing is now controlled by four firms, whereas it had two dozen viable players as recently as 1980. The level of mergers and acquisitions is breathtaking. In the first half of 2000, the volume of merger deals in global media, Internet, and telecommunications totaled $300 billion, triple the figure for the first six months of 1999, and exponentially higher than the figure from ten years earlier. The logic guiding media firms in all of this is clear: get very big very quickly, or get swallowed up by someone else. This is similar to trends taking place in many other industries. “There will be less than a handful of end-game winners,” the CEO of Chase Manhattan announced in September 2000. “We want to be an end-game winner.”
But in few industries has the level of concentration been as stunning as in media. In short order, the global media market has come to be dominated by seven multinational corporations: Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, and Bertelsmann. None of these companies existed in their present form as media companies as recently as fifteen years ago; today nearly all of them will rank among the largest 300 non-financial firms in the world for 2001. Of the seven, only three are truly U.S. firms, though all of them have core operations there. Between them, these seven companies own the major U.S. film studios; all but one of the U.S. television networks; the few companies that control 80-85 percent of the global music market; the preponderance of satellite broadcasting worldwide; a significant percentage of book publishing and commercial magazine publishing; all or part of most of the commercial cable TV channels in the U.S. and worldwide; a significant portion of European terrestrial(traditional over-the-air) television; and on and on and on.
By nearly all accounts, the level of concentration is only going to increase in the near future. “I’m a great believer that we are going to a world of vertically integrated companies where only the big survive,” said Gordon Crawford, an executive of Capital Research & Management, a mutual fund that is among the largest shareholders in many of the seven firms listed above. For firms to survive, Business Week observes, speed is of the essence: “Time is short.” “In a world moving to five, six, seven media companies, you don’t want to be in a position where you have to count on others,” Peter Chernin, the president of News Corporation states. “You need to have enough marketplace dominance that people are forced to deal with you.” Chernin elaborates: “There are great arguments about whether content is king or distribution is king. At the end of the day, scale is king. If you can spread your costs over a large base, you can outbid your competitors for programming and other assets you want to buy.” By 2000, massive cross-border deals—like Pearson merging its TV operations with CLT (Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Télédiffusion) and Bertelsmann, or Vivendi purchasing Universal—were increasing in prominence.
Chernin’s firm, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, may be the most aggressive global trailblazer, although cases could be made for Sony, Bertelsmann, or AOL-Time Warner. Murdoch has satellite TV services that run from Asia to Europe to Latin America. His Star TV dominates in Asia with thirty channels in seven languages. News Corporation’s TV service for China, Phoenix TV, in which it has a 45 percent stake, now reaches forty-five million homes there and has had an 80 percent increase in advertising revenues in the past year. And this barely begins to describe News Corporation’s entire portfolio of assets: Twentieth Century Fox films, Fox TV network, HarperCollins publishers, TV stations, cable TV channels, magazines, over 130 newspapers, and professional sport teams.
Why has this taken place? The conventional explanation is technology; i.e. radical improvements in communication technology make global media empires feasible and lucrative in a manner unthinkable in the past. This is similar to the technological explanation for globalization writ large. But this is only a partial explanation, at best. The real motor force has been the incessant pursuit for profit that marks capitalism, which has applied pressure for a shift to neoliberal deregulation. In media this means the relaxation or elimination of barriers to commercial exploitation of media and to concentrated media ownership. There is nothing inherent in the technology that required neoliberalism; new digital communication could have been used, for example, to simply enhance public service media had a society elected to do so. With neoliberal values, however, television, which had been a noncommercial preserve in many nations, suddenly became subject to transnational commercial development. It has been at the center of the emerging global media system.
Once the national deregulation of media began in major nations like the United States and Britain, it was followed by global measures like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), all designed to clear the ground for investment and sales by multinational corporations in regional and global markets. This has laid the foundation for the creation of the global media system, dominated by the afore-mentioned conglomerates. Now in place, the system has its own logic. Firms must become larger and diversified to reduce risk and enhance profit-making opportunities, and they must straddle the globe so as to never be outflanked by competitors. This is a market that some anticipate having trillions of dollars in annual revenues within a decade. If that is to be the case, those companies that sit atop the field may someday rank among the two or three dozen largest in the world.