The media monotony.

Media criticism.
Aug. 4 2004 6:32 PM

The Media Monotony

Who's afraid of Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, Bertelsmann, and News Corp.? Not me.

Book cover

Ben H. Bagdikian started writing The Media Monopoly two decades ago, and like a latter-day Walt Whitman, he can't bring himself to finish his magnum opus. This spring, Bagdikian published the seventh edition of his influential book, titling it with Madison Avenue flair, The New Media Monopoly.

The first edition, published in 1983, assailed the concentration of media ownership, finding that 50 companies dominated the newspaper, broadcast, magazine, book, and movie industries. These firms did the bidding of corporate America because, in Bagdikian's view, they were corporate America, their boards of directors interlocked with those of other major corporations.

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Perhaps owing to his print past at the Washington Post and his service as the dean of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Bagdikian fretted mostly about the consolidation of the newspaper business in the original The Media Monopoly. But with each successive edition, Bagdikian's primary complaint has ambled away from newspaper consolidation to criticize the film-television-radio-magazine-book-music empires. Today he writes, "In 1983 there were 50 dominant media corporations; now there are five," pointing his finger at Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, Disney, and Bertelsmann. Only one of the "Big Five" (his term), News Corp., publishes much in the way of newspapers—and its only U.S. title is the New York Post.

In typical overstatement, Bagdikian writes, "These five corporations decide what most citizens will—or will not—learn." Yes, the Big Five own or control four major movie studios, nearly threescore cable channels, five broadcast TV networks, a satellite TV operation, a thousand or more radio and TV stations, a big chunk of the publishing industry, and enough magazines to start a paper drive. Butthe Big Five determine what the majority learns only in those places where the newsstand sells only the New York Post and Time and where TV receivers have been doctored to accept signals only from CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Fox News Channel—which is to say nowhere.

If anybody decides what most citizens learn, it's the agenda-setting editors at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. The TV news would go dark if it couldn't crib from the Big Four Newspapers. NPR's Morning Edition would fall mute. The newsweeklies would have to run more cover stories on ice cream, dreams, and guides to colleges.

For all the Big Five's alleged powers of mind control, consider the list of influential news organizations besides the Big Four Newspapers they don't control. The top newspaper chains: Gannett, Knight Ridder, Cox, Scripps, McClatchy, Landmark, Copley, Newhouse, Freedom, Hearst, MediaNews, and Tribune. The Boston Globe. Newsweek. The various flavors of NBC News. The New Yorker and Conde Nast's other titles. PBS. NPR. Reuters. AFP. AP. Bloomberg. U.S. News & World Report. Pearson. Hachette Filipacchi. The Atlantic. The Economist. And scores of local TV stations.

In his January 2004 Reasoncover story, Ben Compaine calls Bagdikian's media consolidation worries "overblown." The media industry isn't highly concentrated, he explains, running the numbers through one widely accepted economic yardstick (the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index). And the media industry hasn't become substantially more concentrated in the last decade. Compaine notes that Bagdikian obsesses over big media acquisitions but ignores divestures. "Much of the best-known merger activity has been more like rearranging the industry furniture," Compaine writes, citing the sale of Universal Pictures to Matsushita, then to Seagram, then to Vivendi, and then finally to GE.

Bagdikian ignores the financial perils of media gigantism. Big isn't necessarily financially beautiful, as the markets have taught CBS Inc. and other conglomerates. In 1986, CBS was the country's largest media company, Compaine reports. It owned a network, a top record label, a magazine division, and a book operation, among other assets. The combination proved fiscally unstable, and CBS dumped practically every property but the network before being acquired by Viacom in 1999.

The synergies media companies hope to reap from their mergers and acquisitions rarely materialize. Disney's absorption of ABC is a business failure. Time Inc. stockholders came to regret its union with Warner Bros., and Time Warner stockholders lament the AOL deal. For better than a year, Time Warner has been trying to divest itself of its book appendages, Little, Brown and Warner Books—no half-assed offer will be refused.

Flipping through the Big Five portfolio, we come to Viacom, which New York magazine's journalist/investor James J. Cramer calls a slow-moving, easy-to-sink battleship at the mercy of nimbler competitors who have invested more wisely in video games, satellite radio, Internet search engines, and video-on-demand.

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