Corporate Concentration: A Threat to the Right to Communicate?
Robert W. McChesney
Not to be distributed without the author's express permission.
Abstract: By the end of the 1990s a major turning point was made in the realm of media. Whereas media systems had been primarily national before the 1990s, a global commercial media market emerged full force by the dawn of the 21st century. Today one must first grasp the nature and logic of the global commercial system and then determine how local and national media deviate from the overall system. This article discusses the strength and power of the emerging global commercial media system.
The Rise of the Global Media System
The Holy Trinity of the Global Media System
Conclusion: The Two Wild Cards in the Global Media Deck
By the end of the 1990s a major turning point was made in
the realm of media. Whereas media systems had been primarily national before
the 1990s, a global commercial media market emerged full force by the dawn of
the 21st century. In the past, to understand any nation's media situation, one
had to first understand the local and national media and then determine where
the global market - which largely meant imports and exports of films, TV shows,
books, and music - fit in. Today one must first grasp the nature and logic of
the global commercial system and then determine how local and national media
deviate from the overall system. The rise of a global commercial media system
is closely linked to the rise of a significantly more integrated 'neoliberal'
global capitalist economic system. To some extent the rise of a global media
market is encouraged by new digital and satellite technologies that make global
markets not only cost effective but also lucrative. It is also encouraged by
the institutions of global capitalism - the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the
World Bank, the International Monetary Fund - as well as those governments,
such as that of the
The rise to dominance of the global commercial media system is more than an economic matter; it also has clear implications for media content, politics and culture. In this article I briefly chronicle the rise of the global media system and its core attributes. It is a system that, in the end, is dominated by less then ten global TNCs with another three or four dozen firms filling out regional and niche markets. I examine the activities and holdings of the three most important global media firms - Time Warner, Disney, and News Corporation - in detail. In my view the general trajectory of the global commercial media system is quite negative if one wishes to preserve and promote those institutions and values that are conducive to meaningful self-government. I conclude by assessing where the Internet fits into the emerging global media system. Some argue that the Internet will 'set us free,' and undermine corporate domination of not only communication but the overall political economy. I think that notion is flawed but, as I discuss, there are other signs that the system is meeting resistance.
The Rise of the Global Media System
The global markets for film production, TV show production,
book publishing and recorded music have been oligopolistic markets for much of
their existence. Although there are important domestic industries in many of
these industries, the global export market is the province of a handful of
What distinguishes the emerging global media system is not
transnational control over exported media content, however, as much as
increasing TNC control over media distribution as well as content. Prior to the
1980s and 1990s, national media systems were typified by nationally owned radio
and television systems, as well as domestic newspaper industries. Newspaper
publishing remains a largely national phenomenon, but the face of television
has changed almost beyond recognition. The rise of cable and satellite
technology has opened up national markets to scores of new channels. The
primary provider of these channels are the media TNCs that dominate cable
television channel ownership in the United States, and have aggressively
established numerous global editions of their channels to accommodate the new
market (see, for example, Williams, 1997). Neoliberal 'free market' policies
have opened up ownership of stations as well as cable and satellite systems to
private and transnational interests. As The Wall Street Journal notes, 'the
cable colonialists continue to press on in
The close connection of the rise of the global media system
to the global capitalist political economy becomes especially clear in two
ways. First, as suggested above, the global media system is the direct result
of the sort of 'neoliberal' deregulatory policies that have assisted in the
formation of global markets for other goods and services. At the global level,
for example, the WTO ruled in 1997 that
The European Union (EU) and European Commission (EC)
provide an excellent case study in the evolution of media policymaking to a
largely market über alles position. Historically European nations have enjoyed
prominent and well-financed national public broadcasters as well as a variety
of other mechanisms to protect and promote domestic cultural production. The EU
and EC hardly are commissioned to advance the interests of
Advertising is the second way that the global media system
is linked to the global market economy. Advertising is conducted
disproportionately by the largest firms in the world, and it is a major weapon
in the struggle to establish new markets. For major firms like Procter &
Gamble and Nike, global advertising is arguably the most important aspect of
their campaigns to maintain strong growth rates (Tomkins, 1997; Beatty, 1997).
In conjunction with the 'globalisation' of the economy, advertising has grown
globally at a rate greater than GDP growth in the 1990s (Cardona, 1997). The
most rapid growth has been in Europe, Latin America, and especially east Asia,
although the economic collapse of the late 1990s has doused what had been characterized
as 'torrid ad growth' (Wentz and Herskovitz, 1997, p. 18; Wentz, 1998).
The advertising agency business itself has consolidated dramatically on a global basis in the 1990s, such that the three largest firms - WPP Group, Omnicom Group and Interpublic Group - have a combined income 15 percent greater than that of the ad organizations ranked 4 through 10, and the size of ad organizations falls precipitously after one gets past the first dozen or so ('Top 10 ad organizations,' 1997). The 15th largest advertising organisation in the world does barely 10 percent of the business of the WPP Group. The consolidation is encouraged by globalisation, as the largest advertisers increasingly prefer to work with a single agency worldwide. When Citibank consolidated its global advertising into one agency in 1997, an observer noted that 'they want to have one brand with one voice - that's their mantra' (Cardona and Arndorfer, 1997, p. 4). The global consolidation is also encouraged because the larger an ad agency, the more leverage it can have getting favourable terms for its clients with global commercial media (Smith, 1997). Put together, all of this suggests ever more consolidation in the years to come, and the largest advertising organisations are scurrying about purchasing almost all of the remaining viable independent agencies around the world (Elliott, 1997; Fannin, 1997b). And this, in turn, suggests increased advertising influence over media operations.
But the most important corporate concentration concerns the
media industry itself, and here concentration and conglomeration are the order
of the day. In short order the global media market has come to be dominated by
nine or ten TNCs, that rank among the largest firms in the world: Time Warner,
Disney, Bertelsmann, Viacom, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), News Corporation,
Sony, Seagram (owner of Universal Studios), General Electric (owner of NBC) and
the Dutch Philips (owner of Polygram). The largest media firm in the world,
Time Warner, is some 50 times larger in terms of annual sales than the world's
50th largest media firm. These firms all have global distribution networks and
have major interests in more than one - usually several - media sectors. The
global media market is rounded out by a second tier of some three or four dozen
firms that are national or regional powerhouses, or which have strong holds
over niche markets, like business or trade publishing. About one-half of these
second-tier firms come from
There are tremendous economic advantages to size and
prudent conglomeration in the global media market, so firms are aggressively
expanding through mergers and acquisitions, or putting themselves in the
position to be purchased at a premium by another giant. Small firms operating
in one market simply cannot compete, unless they are formally linked to a
giant. Sony, for one example, has hired the investment banking Blackstone
Group, to help it identity media takeover candidates (Shapiro, 1997). To
compete in the global market, a firm needs the scale that comes with being a major
But corporate growth, oligopolistic markets, and
conglomeration barely reveal the extent to which the global media system is
extraordinarily noncompetitive in the economic sense of the term. On the one
hand, many of the largest media firms share major shareholders, own pieces of
each other, or have interlocking Boards of Directors. When Variety compiled its
list of the 50 largest media firms for 1997, it observed that 'merger mania'
and cross-ownership had 'resulted in a complex web of interrelationships' that
will 'make you dizzy' (Peers, 1997b, p. 31). On the other hand, the market
strongly encourages firms to establish equity joint ventures where the media
giants each own a part of an enterprise. This way firms reduce competition and
risk, and increase the chance of profitability. In the burgeoning realm of
satellite television, for example, even the potentially most lucrative markets
Satellite broadcasting is a very small example of the joint venture phenomenon. The 10 largest media TNC have joint ventures on average with six of the other nine media giants. Often times, the media TNCs enjoy multiple joint ventures with each other. News Corporation has joint ventures with each of the other nine media giants. News Corporation heir Lachlan Murdoch expressed the rational view when explaining why News Corporation is working more closely with Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd., the company that with News Corp. effectively controls much of Australian media. It's better, Murdoch the younger contends, if we are not 'aggressively attacking each other all the time' (Groves, 1997c, p. 8). The global media market is one where the dominant firms compete aggressively in some concentrated oligopolistic markets, are key suppliers to each other in other markets, and are partners in yet other markets. As the headline in one trade publication put it, this is a market where the reigning spirit is to 'Make profits, not war' (Hall and McConville, 1997, p. 3). In short, the global media market looks much more like a cartel than it does a competitive marketplace.
The Holy Trinity of the Global Media System
The nature of the global media system seems less abstract when one examines the recent growth, activities, and strategies of its three most important TNCs: Time Warner, Disney and News Corporation. Time Warner and Disney are the two largest media firms in the world, with 1998 sales in the area of $23-26 billion. News Corporation is in contention with Viacom for the status as fourth largest global media firm, with sales slightly more than one-half those of Time Warner and Disney, but under its CEO Rupert Murdoch it has led the way in media globalization. These are global empires constructed largely in the 1990s, and they are a long way from completion.
Time Warner is the outgrowth of the 1989 merger of Time and
Warner Communications and the 1996 acquisition of Turner Broadcasting. It will
do around $26 billion in business in 1998, and its sales are expected to
continue to grow at double-digit rates for the foreseeable future. With 200
subsidiaries worldwide, Time Warner has seen its non-U.S. income increase from
around 15 percent in the early 1990s to 35 percent in 1997. Early in the 21st
century, Time Warner expects to earn a majority of its revenues outside of the
Here are some of Time Warner's holdings:
This list fails to do justice to Time Warner's global
reach. CNN International is the dominant global TV news channel, broadcasting
in several languages to some 200 nations (
But what really distinguishes Time Warner and what gives it
such leverage in the global market are two related things. First, in addition
to arguably producing more media content than any other firm, Time Warner also
has the world's largest library of music, films, TV shows, and cartoons to
exploit. This makes Time Warner a firm that is extremely attractive to national
media firms for joint ventures or simply major contracts, as it has with Canal
Plus, the satellite television power in
But nobody understands branding and merchandising better
than Disney, which runs neck-and-neck with Time Warner for the honor of being
the world's largest media firm. With some 590 Disney retail stores worldwide as
well as merchandising and licensing deals with numerous manufacturers and
retailers, Disney is evolving into what one industry observer characterizes as
'the ultimate global consumer goods company' (Mermigas, 1997, p. 14). Disney
has moved aggressively into
Here are some of Disney's holdings:
Disney, like Time Warner, has globalized its production and
has signed production and distribution deals with firms in
Sport is arguably the single most lucrative content area
for the global media industry, a point understood best of all by Rupert
Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation. Sport was crucial in making his British Sky
Broadcasting (BSkyB) the most successful satellite TV service in the world and
in making the U.S. Fox TV network a full fledged competitor to ABC, NBC and
CBS. Murdoch, more than any other figure, has been the visionary of a global
corporate media empire. Using as a base his newspaper empires, first in his
native Australia where he controls 70 percent of the daily circulation, and
later in Britain where he is the largest newspaper publisher, Murdoch has
expanded into film, publishing, and, especially, television on a global basis
('Let battle commence,' 1997). He has established a major film studio in
Here are some of News Corp.'s holdings:
The defining feature of Murdoch's global push is the
establishment of satellite television systems, along with the channels and
programming to be displayed on them. By 1998 Murdoch claimed to have TV
networks and systems that reached more than 75 percent of the world's
population, with his launch of satellite systems in
When Prince Al-Waleed invested $400 million to purchase a
five percent stake in News Corp. in 1997, he commented that 'News Corp. is the
only real global media company that covers the world' (R. Frank, 1997, p. B4).
Whether News Corp. ever fulfills its ambitions remains to be seen, and it faces
numerous obstacles along the way. In
Conclusion: The Two Wild Cards in the Global Media Deck
The discussion to this point has emphasized the strength and power, the almost irreversibility, of the emerging global commercial media system. If one is concerned with the promotion and expansion of participatory democracy, or some sort of civic life and values aside from those of the market, this is a fairly depressing scenario. But in tumultuous times like these, no one can speak with certainty with regard to the future. In mainstream debate, in fact, the tumult is largely associated with the dramatic technological revolution in computering and communication, most significantly represented by the rise of the Internet in the middle and late 1990s. With the Internet 'wild card,' the traditional concentrated control over communication on technological grounds effectively ends. Accordingly, the Chinese government has gone to considerable lengths to limit the ability of Chinese to get online, or to prevent to dissemination of politically dissident websites (Eckholm, 1997). But the Internet does not merely threaten governments; it also holds the potential to undermine corporate control of media. If anyone can produce a website as minimal cost and it can be distributed worldwide via the World Wide Web, it will be only a matter of time (expansion of bandwidth, improvement of software) until the media giants find themselves swamped by countless high quality competitors. As one New York Times correspondent put it: 'To hear Andy Grove [CEO of Intel] and Reed Hundt [former chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission] talk, the media industry is about where the horse-and-buggy business was when Henry Ford first cranked up the assembly line' (Landler, 1998, p. 9).
This is nonsense. Although the rise of the Internet and
digital communication introduces instability to the media industry, in the
current neoliberal political environment, the Internet is being developed on
nearly purely commercial grounds, meaning whoever can make the most money wins.
Thereal action with the Internet at present comes less on the media side than
on the telecommunication and computering side, and with the corporate economic
order in general. The easiest and most lucrative manner for the Internet (and
digital communication networks) to be exploited is to serve the wealthiest
corporate clients who have the most to gain by rapid, global communication
(Schiller, in press). 'It may seem as if the two year old internet industry is
mounting a takeover of corporate
It remains to be seen exactly where the Internet and/or any other digital communication network will fit into the global media landscape 10 or 20 years down the road. If it remains, as Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin puts it, 'not clear where you make money on it' (in Landler, 1998, p. 9), the web might become primarily a means of selling digital media products directly to the consumer. To the extent it is aggressively developed as a commercial medium by cable, satellite and terrestrial television companies, all signs point to its becoming increasing like the existing commercial broadcasting system. Something along these lines tends to be the prevailing wisdom among the media giants. 'I believe the electronic revolution is simply one new form of communications that will find its place in the food chain of communications and will not displace or replace anything that already exists,' the president of Time, Inc. stated, 'just as television did not replace radio, just as cable did not replace network television, just as the VCR did not replace the movie theatres' (Snoddy, 1997, p. 7). At any rate, in this type of scenario, the existing media giants should have little problem using their current market position to incorporate the Internet into their existing empires. There may be some reshuffling of the deck between them, but little likelihood of the industry being overturned.
Ironically, the most striking feature of digital
communication may well be not that it opened up competition in communication
markets, but that it has made it vastly easier, attractive, and necessary for
firms to consolidate and strike alliances across the media, telecommunication,
and computer software sectors. In the 1990s almost all the media giants have
entered into joint ventures or strategic alliances with the largest telecom and
software firms. Time Warner is connected to several of the
At any rate, the global corporate media giants are leaving nothing to chance with the Internet. Bertelsmann and Sony, the third and sixth largest global media firms respectively, have made development of the Internet a main strategic focus (Studemann, 1997). Consider the activities of Time Warner and Disney, for example. Time Warner produces nearly 200 web sites, which it aggressively promotes to its audiences through its existing media (Landler, 1998). Its CNN web site is now available in Swedish, with other languages to follow (Jakobsen, 1997; Galetto, 1997). Time Warner uses it web sites to go after the youth market, to attract sports fans, and to provide entertainment content similar to that of its 'old' media (Griffith, 1998; Shaw, 1997). Time Warner is bringing advertisers aboard with long term contracts, and giving them equity interest in some projects (Sharkey, 1997). Its most developed relationship with advertisers is the ParentTime web site joint venture it has with Procter & Gamble (Riedman, 1997). Disney's vision of the digital future also sees a major role for advertising. 'With a click of a remote-control button,' ABC president Preston Padden enthused in 1997, 'customers will be able to tell us if they want a free sample of a new headache remedy or wish to test-drive a new car' (Pope, 1997, p. B5). Disney has been as aggressive in cyberspace as Time Warner and the other media giants; in 1997, as part of a 'blitz by Disney to establish Internet beachheads for many of its products,' it launched a subscription website for its 'Daily Blast' children's web site, exclusively available on the Microsoft Network. (Orwall, 1997c, p. B4).
By the end of the 1990s, while it remains unclear where the Internet will fit into or how it might alter the global media system, this much can be concluded. Despite the much ballyhooed 'openness' of the Internet, to the extent it becomes a viable mass medium, it will likely be dominated by the usual corporate suspects. The media giants have enormous advantages over any other Internet 'content providers.' These include their abilities: to use their existing programming; to promote their web sites on their traditional media; and to draw in major advertisers. Moreover, as the possessors of the hottest 'brands,' the media firms have the leverage to get premier location from browser software makers and Internet service providers (Orwall, 1997a). The ultimate aim of the corporate media giants, as the president of Starwave, the web site producer linked to Disney, stated, is 'to create the destination which contains everything someone could want . . It's the brand power that we have' (Sacharow, 1997, p. 48). To the extent the Internet develops as a commercial medium worldwide, these patterns would hold true as well. Indeed, aimed at the affluent consumers that would attract web advertising, the Internet might even increase information and communication inequality in the developing world, if not everywhere (Browne and Green, 1997). The dissident and noncommercial voices will remain and have the potential of being extraordinarily important. But they will hardly challenge the hegemony of the corporate communication giants, as they will exist largely on the margins with what at this point in time is an indeterminable amount of influence in the big scheme of things.
But it does not have to be this way. The second wild card
in the global media deck is the world's people, constituted as organized
citizens rather than as consumers and couch potatoes. It can be difficult,
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