Wednesday, June 29, 2005
So what does that mean? Who are the winners and losers?
It’s not as obvious as it may at first seem.
The self-styled consumerists are already complaining. Consumers Union jumped right in: "We believe consumers remain in a substantial risk of paying bloated prices to cable companies.” The consumers groups seemed to have had a statement ready: “The court's ruling also threatens to cement the cozy duopoly of cable modem and DSL service that has made a mockery of competition in American broadband markets." (Hmm, then what is it again that is driving DSL rates down to below the level of what dial-ups were charging a few months ago?).
Cable companies should be pleased, as would be telcos—a rare alignment of interests. But these are short run victories. In the longer term, The Brand X decision may be a huge win for consumers, a loss for the telcos, and a mixed bag for the cable folks.
Good for Consumers
Here’s why. Major stakeholders in the outcome of Brand X were EarthLink and other ISPs who resell telco DSL and hoped to resell cable broadband. While their participation in the market gives the appearance of greater competition, it is only half a glass. As resellers, they still must depend on the suppliers-- telcos or cable providers-- for wholesale pricing. This sets a floor for their own pricing. It's an easy way into the market—little capital expense. But it does not really add to the broadband infrastructure and create real competition.
With the Brand X decision, these ISPs must now fend for themselves. The good news is they have some very realistic options: multiple wireless broadband technologies. They can do what Philadelphia and various other municipalities are building—city-wide wireless. They can use Wi-Fi. They can use the developing Wi-Max. There are several flavors of fixed wireless technologies.
"We think wireless has a lot of promise and we're very aggressively pursuing that," a spokesman for EarthLink told The Wall Street Journal. The Journal also noted that: “In Philadelphia, for example, EarthLink has put in a bid to provide wireless Web service across the city, and is testing wireless technology in Northern California markets. And in Madison, Wis., AOL plans to test this year a high-speed wireless network to gain direct access to customers.”
My prediction is that, with the easy and cheap option eliminated, competition will be encouraged in new directions. (There is always talk about using electric utility wires, but so far it’s been years of talk, little action. I remain an agnostic on this as an option).
Loss for Telcos
The telcos may gain full control over DSL, but they lose a potential political ally in what may be another high stakes battle: video. As the telcos roll out cable-like video services over their new fiber networks, they are running into the same local franchise barriers that stalled the cable providers in the early 1980s. As it now stands, in most states they will need to go town by town to get permission to be in the “cable” business. Having lost a major state battle (in Texas) to get a pass around this expensive and time consuming barrier, the telcos had hoped to get a competition-oriented Congress to revise the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to provide a federal law overriding the states. If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Brand X, the cable companies would likely have also turned to Congress to overrule the FCC. Thus, two major industries would have joined to promote a change.
But the cable industry now sees no need for immediate legislative action, leaving the telcos all alone. That makes the possibility of getting Congress to act far less likely.
Mixed Bag for Cable
The cable industry is the big short term winner. They got the ISPs off their backs. They will not need to engage in an expensive lobby effort with Congress. Their telco competition is mired down in franchise battles and a lonely lobbying effort. (Come to think of it, perhaps the consumerists would want to align themselves with the telcos to persuade Congress to speed up competition for video programming services. I’m serious!) But down the road, cable interests will face the same enhanced competition as the telcos should the concerted efforts of the EarthLinks forge a viable third broadband option in the form of wireless. And, sooner or later, the telcos will be encroaching on their video bailiwick, just as they are moving along with switched telephone offerings in the telco space.
Brand X resolved a battle. But the war of competition and lower prices and/or more bang for the buck—and usually both of these—rages.
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Friday, June 24, 2005
This entry is a bit lengthy because I want to again address the need to employ fact and understanding to trump selective perception and social agenda mongering in determining media structure policy.
I have no need or interest to come to the defense of any media company, large or small. They can carry their own water.
But I do enjoy deflating urban legends. And much of what passes for “fact” or “evidence” of how big media is somehow lessening democracy or diversity or culture or localism is indeed myth or distortion. Some of it is repeated knowingly, by those with ideological agendas. In many cases, trusting innocents pass it along, much as they do those serious sounding viral emails about pleading for help for an ill daughter of a Wal-Mart manager in
On page 40 of my Media Monopoly Myth study I mention an incident from 2002 as reported by the Washington Post in May 2003:
…Clear Channel owns all six commercial stations in Minot, ND. When a train derailment in the middle of the night released a frightening cloud of anhydrous ammonia, Minot police sought to notify the citizenry of the crisis. They called KCJB, the station designated as the local emergency broadcaster, but no one was home; the station was being run by computer, automatically passing along Clear Channel programming from another city.
The last sentence from a press release announcing availability of my study said:
There is no support for the contention that media ownership by chains or conglomerates leads to any consistent pattern of lowered standards, content, or performance when compared with media owned by families or small companies.
Within hours of the release of my study, an entry that cut and pasted part of the press release appeared on the Take Back the Media Web site from an anonymous poster who went by Stranger. To which Stranger responded: “'No lowered standards? The fine folks at NMRC [the organization that commissioned the study] are obviously not familiar with what happened a few years back in
Typical of folks who already know the “truth,” if anything was obvious was that Stranger (and others who commented afterward) did not bother to read the study itself, feeling that reading the one page press release was close enough.
More critically, what Stranger and other Clear Channel bashers skipped, including
- Station KCJB is staffed 24/7 with an on-duty announcer.
- The local police tried to notify the station using an outdated emergency response hotline rather than the automated system had had been put in place in 1997. The obsolete hot line thus called into the station’s switchboard, which was also being flooded by calls from local residents seeking information.
- Off-duty station personnel started coming into the station on their own as word of the derailment got out. They tried calling their police contacts, but the police phones lines were also inundated with callers, so the station personnel could not get through.
- In the post-mortem after the incident, the KCJB engineer discovered that the
police had changed the emergency broadcast frequency they used without notifying the station, thus making the system incompatible. Minot
In his letter Mays was too diplomatic to come out and say that the crisis had more to do with screw-ups by the local authorities than the result of programming on the station.
Half of Air
Clear Channel was viewed as the Dark Force as well by a correspondent I quoted in my study on page 43. She had written me:
Clear Channel pulled Howard Stern from the air [from the six of their 1200 stations]. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am affected because Clear Channel owns--thousands?--of radio stations throughout the country. And Clear Channel is conservative, and Clear Channel is TAKING AWAY MY RIGHT TO CHOOSE. Consolidation is not an issue we should be concerned about? … Clear Channel is a sticking point in my side because of its political affiliations (read: Bush administration) and clear dominance in the industry. They use their stations to support their own agenda (I'm talking specifically of the many pro-war rallies Clear Channel sponsored via radio stations--I believe Clear Channel helped create the cultural climate of "If you are against the war, you are against America”).
Again, some facts will provide perspective. According to Clear Channel’s Robert Fisher:
Clear Channel has no political agenda. Our local market managers decide what programming is aired. People assume that because we syndicate Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Dr. Laura and that we are headquartered in
Once again we see that media companies, like other for-profit organizations, thrive only when they are responsive to some segment of consumer needs and wants. As I conclude in my study (and elsewhere):
Restricting their coverage, their range of films or magazine titles or news shows is not what the big companies are about. They seek to reach the mass market when they can and niche markets when they spot them. Given the vast diversity of interests in a nation the size of the United States there is potential profit in reaching the right wing as well as the left wing, in programming for Spanish speakers a well as English, in publishing books for escapism and for self help, in investigative reporting that is critical of government as well as editorials that may be supportive. And if the big guys don’t provide it, some small publisher or producer will.
Let me know of other urban legends in the media ownership relam, or anecdotes that need to be tested for accuracy.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Competition in television continues to heat up. Not only are the phone companies like Verizon busy implanting fiber optic cable to residences and lining up programming in their assault on the cable and DBS providers, but the Internet is building its video muscle as well. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo, among others, are becoming serious media players. Although AOL is part of the largest of the traditional media companies, Microsoft and Yahoo are new additions to the media world.
This week AOL (part of Time Warner, as you know) officially announced that it was essentially taking all its content outside its walled garden and making it freely available. Recognizing that well over half of all Internet users access it via broadband, AOL's new strategy places an emphasis on video. As reported at SFGate.com, "Many of the bells and whistles will be based at AOL's Video Hub, which will focus on not only entertainment, but also news." "Visitors will be able to watch music videos, exclusive concerts and a Web-only reality show..."
Indeed, AOL is giving its users two options for a customized home page, one with the usual picture and text links, the other focusing on video highlights. This Video Hub lets users personalize their Internet TV. Initially it will be choices of movie trailers, TV previews, music videos or highlights of news, sports and entertainment. But that is expected to expand over time.
Competition in radio is also getting hotter with AOL's partnership with XM Satellite Radio. This will provide 20 free XM radio stations free at AOL, in addition to the 130 radio channels that AOL had previously made available only for its subscribers.
Yahoo, the most accessed of all Web sites, is moving into video big time. With 75% of its visitors on broadband, Yahoo is actively pursuing ventures with producers and creative talent to provide more video through its portal. Aggregating a worldwide audience of an estimated 300 million visitors, one analyst ventures "Those are numbers that are sufficient to make the likes of Rupert Murdoch salivate and turn green with envy." That is, as Yahoo moves further into content, it is a formidable competitor for both advertising dollars and consumer time to the traditional media companies.
MSN is also video intensive. At the moment it is heavy with news and information clips from NBC's "Today" show, Fox Sports and CNBC for business news. But it is also an outlet for smaller features, such as a video horoscope from Astrocenter.com. However, if MSN wants to differentiate itself and attract a regular audience, they--as well as AOL, Yahoo and Google for that matter -- will inevitably have to deliver more of their own exclusive content – entertainment or information that cannot be found anywhere else on the Internet. All indication is that is exactly where they are heading.
Internet advertising is booming-- a sign that the Internet is indeed becoming an entrenched vehicle for media and commerce. According to Robert Coen, a senior vice president at ad agency Universal McCann, Internet advertising could hit $8.8 billion in 2005, a 25% increase over last year. This would actually be more than 50% as much as the combined ad revenue of the four largest broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Those institutions are forecast to see only a 2% increase in ad revenue this year, to $16.8 billion.
Competition is coming from all directions: the old established players are trying to diversify, even at the risk of cannibalizing their older properties. They are facing entrants who are taking advantage of the growing penetration of always-on high speed Internet connections. The winners are us-- consumers-- who have more variety in what we can access, where we access it and when we can access it.
(Speaking of Internet advertising, you can help support this otherwise pro bono site by clicking through on one or two of the Google-placed text ads to the right. A few cents here, a few cents there.... Thanks).
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Monday, June 20, 2005
The Supreme Court announced last week that it would not review an Appeals Court ruling that instructed the FCC to come up with stronger justification for its media ownership rules. When the Third Circuit told the FCC to go back to the drawing board there was much crowing among those who favor 1950s regulation for a 21st century information landscape. This despite the fact that the Appeals Court did not actually rule on the merits of the FCC's proposals, which modestly moved parts of the old media industry into the new media environment. And in the end, by at least one possible scenario, the "anti" forces may have achieved only a pyrrhic victory. Here's my reasoning:
The Appeals Court rejected the FCC's ownership policies on a procedural issue: It ruled that the Commission did not provide solid justification for its specific limits. For example, why is 45% the correct number for a cap on national audience for any owner of television broadcast stations? In effect, why not 41.79% or 48.119%?
But that question begs the issue, and one of these days a judge or a panel of judges will understand. There is no national cap on the audience that can be reached by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek or any book published by Random House. There is no national cap on Sirius or XM satellite radio stations. There is no cap on NPR.
The proposed FCC rules say that in markets with five or more broadcast stations, one entity could own two stations but only one of those may be affiliated with one of the four largest networks. Why shouldn't this be limited to six or more stations? Or ownership of three stations? Where do these limits come from? After all, in Philadelphia there are only two daily newspapers, both owned by the same entity. There is only one newspaper in nearby Camden. One in Atlantic City. One in Wilmington. But residents in any of those cities can receive the nine Philadelphia broadcast stations, from eight owners, including two public television stations. And, assuming the Philadelphia area is like most of the country, somewhere between 85% and 90% of households have chosen to get their television via cable or satellite. Many of those viewers no longer have any idea what is a broadcast stations and what, like Bravo or The Food Channel, is "cable." So why are there no limits on newspaper ownership but even under the FCC's proposals strict limits on broadcasters?
Of course we think we know the answer. Broadcasters use the public airwaves. But even if that made sense 50 years ago it is beyond time to re-evaluate that justification. The public responsibilities imposed on commercial television broadcasters today have gone from little to almost none. Perhaps the most obvious is that broadcast television does not have the latitude for language and violence that is otherwise permissible under First Amendment standards for video that does not travel over the terrestrial airwaves within the UHF and VHF portion of the spectrum. Satellite signals, of course, come to Earth via spectrum. That it is not considered broadcasting only highlights the absurdity of the distinction of what slice of the spectrum is used. Cell phones use electromagnetic spectrum. Heaven knows there is no limit on the content -- voice or SMS or an other form of bits-- that goes between towers and handsets.
Now I suppose one could turn my reasoning around: instead of removing regulation on broadcasters we should impose more on satellite providers and anything else that uses the airwaves.
But then there's those 45 pesky words called the First Amendment. The ones that include "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
So my scenario is this: an enlightened judge is going to be assigned the case with the next version of the FCC's ownership regulations. He or she is going to reject those, too. But the ruling will be more specific: There is no longer justification for limiting broadcasters with restrictions any greater than those imposed on any other media or other industry segment. Television is television. It can longer longer be a second class citizen under the First Amendment.
The so-called consumerists and media reformers will howl at the termerity of applying the First Amendment to this media technology. Congresspersons will grandstand. But it would be the right decision. The Supreme Court will uphold the Appeals Court.
By the way, current broadcast license holders might not like the implications of this either. First, the implication is that they, like anyone else who gets spectrum, will have to pay for it. They should have been required to bid on digital spectrum. Maybe it's not too late. Another consequence of being treated like any other video provider would be the end of the "must carry" rule. Whereas nonbroadcast cable networks must bargain with cable and satellite operators for channel space, broadcasters get a free ride. That too could end.
It could be -- and should be-- the end to one of the longest running free -- and very profitable-- lunches of all time.
(For a good discussion with a wealth of citations covering the First Amendment and media access issue, click here and go to chapter six of Adam Thierer's new book, Media Myths).
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
One of the wonderful things about documentation (whether text, aural or visual) is that it's akin to leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back to where you started. For those of us in the research and analysis business, it's a method for keeping score: what did you say, when did you say it and how accurate were you? However, most of the time it is too daunting to go back into volumes of records to compare then and now, though digital storage and improved search engines are changing that dynamic.
To get to my point: Richard Siklos, in London's Daily Telegraph, is just one of several who have commented of late on the momentum for divestiture in the media industry. He wrote (see the entire column here):
Media giants have been assembling and disassembling themselves for years. Remember when John Malone split his cable and programming assets from the old Tele-Communications, forming Liberty Media, then sold the cable business altogether? Or the whole Seagram-Universal-Vivendi debacle? Time Warner has only just unwound Time Warner Entertainment, a strange construct it created years ago to house some of its best assets in partnership with outside investors.
This is preface to a bit of personal gratification I found in yesterday's announcement that Viacom's Board voted to deconsolidate itself into two pieces, as the most recent development in this series of announcements of media company divestitures. I've held for many years that many media mergers were bad news. Not because they were a sign of any sort of economic or thought-control monopoly, nor as speculation that they endangered journalism or civic discourse. I thought they were bad news because they were simply (but expensively) bad business decisions. As such they drain resources from the content they could create or the distribution they could provide. In my strategic view many did not make sense. CEOs talked about synergies that I just did not see as being realistic. The technologies did not mesh nor did the business models. The Time Warner-AOL merger was the high water mark of ill-advised combinations.
Fortunately I documented my (in hindsight) right-on analysis. In the 3rd edition of my book, Who Owns the Media? (on page 566) I wrote that vertical combinations in particular were ill-advised. The perpetrators would need to "undo them years later." And so they are. I continued:
In the real world of business, sometimes what looks like monopoly power from the outside can drag down profits, development and growth when looked at from the inside. Eventually, savvy managers divest as well as acquire.
And so it is coming to pass. And for just the reasoning I suggested. (Hear my horn tooting?) Following is a five year chart of the stock performance of Viacom, News Corp., Disney and Time Warner, the four largest publicly owned media conglomerates, compared with the Dow Jones Industrial Average. (A two year chart would look much the same). Viacom performed the poorest. But every one is trading well below what they were worth in 2000, while the Dow ended on Tuesday roughly where it started.
What this says is that investors-- mostly institutions and similar aggregators of yours and my 501k and pension funds-- have come to the conclusion that big is not always better. Having more and more Web pages indexed in Google's data servers is better -- and profitable. A merger between Google and eBay, for example, would be neither.
Given the dramatic changes in the information industry over the past few decades and into the foreseeable future, it would be ludicrous for incumbent players not to be looking for new opportunities, including mergers and acquisitions. A newspaper company today that restricted its investment to new presses or adding journalists would be signaling its own downward spiral to death or selling out. The recent acquisition by The New York Times Co. of About.com makes sense strategically -- though I might question if the $410 million cash price paid was too dear.
When Viacom's chairman, Sumner Redstone, announced the acquisition of CBS in 1999 he said, "This partnership seems almost dictated by destiny." Like many marriages, the match made in heaven may end with divorce when the incompatibilities that could have been spotted initially were papered over by infatuation. Corporate mergers seem to be no different -- they are created by men and (less often) women who are prone to mistaking the excitement of the deal for the rationale underlying business logic. The Viacom separation is just the latest and most dramatic of the natural ebb and flow of the media industry's dynamism.
Monday, June 13, 2005
Before the Internet, starting a new periodical was perhaps the easiest of the mass media to launch, despite the short odds on their success. Whether started with the deep pockets of an established media company of by entrepreneurs, only about 20% of new titles survived for at least five years.
So given the low cost and ease of entry to the Web world, what’s been happening with magazine start-ups? According to Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who has been tracking magazines start-ups for decades, new magazine titles are on the rebound from the turndown of a few years ago. Last year he counted 1006 launches, up from 953 the previous year. In the first quarter of this year he found 236 launches, an increase of 11% from 2004.
Prof. Husni does not provide details on who started these magazines. But if history is a guide, about two thirds would be the initiative of individuals or small publishers.
Do large publishers dominate what we read? If they do it’s only because of what we choose to read. Reader’s Digest has a larger readership than, say, the literary Utne Magazine because the former publishes general interest articles while Utne republishes articles from “2000 alternative media sources.” By definition the sources are “alternative” because they are not mainstream!
The data shows that from the 1950s through the 1990s the percentage of all periodical industry revenue accounted for by the four, eight and even 50 largest publishers was eadily declining. In the late 1990s it ticked upward. Nonetheless, in 2002 the largest periodical publishers accounted for about the same proportion of sales as they did in the 1960s.
It’s hard to make a convincing case of insidious media concentration when investors are still risking their funds in periodicals and the industry is no more concentrated than it was 30 or 40 years ago when there were “only” 8000 titles and the most popular titles like Life and Look accounted for a greater proportion of total readership than any titles do today.
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Sunday, June 12, 2005
Clearly others are thinking along the same lines. Editorial cartoonist Jeff Danzier captured in a whimsical panel a hint of what I am proposing. You can see the original here.
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Monday, June 06, 2005
For Decades Number of Radio Stations Grew, Advertising Declined, Ownership Caps Unchanged. What Would You Expect?
For the small but vocal segment of the population that spends much time mulling about the media industry, the changes in the radio business in the past decade may seem to be immense. And it was, though only in the context of how little the industry changed structurally in the previous 70 years. The radio industry had seen only one or two “inflection points’ (to use a term from Intel’s Andrew Grove) in its history. The first and still most significant was television, which hit barely 25 years into the development of the industry. FM stereo, in early 1970s, was a second and less violent change. And that’s about it.
For most of the second half of the 20th century radio was a rather sleepy industry. By the early 1950s it had been eclipsed by television as the medium with the greatest national interest to audiences and to advertisers. It took barely 10 years from its peak in 1945, when 15% of all advertising revenue was devoted to radio, to its trough with just 6% of advertising expenditures. Over the next 50 years radio edged its way up to 8% of all media advertising. But in 1947 there were only 1212 stations spread out over the U.S., compared to more than 13,000 today (about 2700 of these being noncommercial).
The result of the 10-fold multiplication of stations during a time that their total source of income -- advertising -- grew only about three times (in constant dollars) was that the average revenue per radio station plummeted 42% between 1950 and 1970. (The details can be found here, in Table 7, page 19 of my new Media Myths study.) By 1990 there had been some rebound, but the average revenue per station was still below the 1950 level. It was not until later in the 1990s that radio station revenue equaled the mid-century level and finally surpassed it.
In other words, the radio business was rather moribund through much of the second half of the 20th century. Unlike virtually any other industry, it was not able to restructure itself in a way that recognized the growth of competition for advertising revenue and audiences. The newspaper industry, faced with many of the same competitive trends, was able to consolidate. While some critics may lament the disappearance of many daily newspapers, the reality is that with a shrinking circulation and advertising share the mature industry had to restructure to leave those that remained robust enough to carry on. But regulation largely prevented radio operators from achieving the economies of scale available to almost ay other industry. In 1990 no single entity could own more than .23% (that’s .0023) of all radio stations then operating. If there was a reason for many individual local stations to cut back on money-losing news and public affairs operations it was the declining financial fortunes of the industry in general.
If the de facto limit on station ownership that existed in 1947 had been maintained proportionately to the number of stations in operation in 1990, a single entity would have been allowed to own 105 stations nationally, or about 1%, instead of 24. Only with the cap finally loosened by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the industry allowed to find an equilibrium. It should surprise no one that initially, like a bottle of seltzer that had been jostled before opened, it spurted to find that equilibrium it could have been moving to more gradually—and less visibly—if the cap had been loosed slowly over time. Consistent with this expectation the pace of radio consolidation has retreated markedly in the past three years.
Over the next few days I will be following up with the real story of radio in Minot, ND, which persists as an Urban Legend on the presumed horrors of group radio ownership, as well as analysis of the oft-repeated but misleading concern about the supposed demise of localism in the media.
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It's a real tour d’force. He contends:
No matter how large any given media outlet is today, it is ultimately just one of hundreds of sources of news, information, and entertainment that we have at our collective disposal," Thierer says. "It is just one voice in our contemporary media cacophony, shouting to be heard above the others. Information and entertainment cannot be monopolized in a free society, especially in today's world of media abundance.
Thierer will discuss the book and its themes at a forum at the National Press Club on June 24. Former FCC Commissioner Susan Ness will be on hand to discuss the book's themes with Thierer and address the role the federal government plays as a regulator of media. See the press release here.
Whether you agree or disagree with his analysis you will find it a treasure trove of original researech and data. I happen to think Adam hits it out of the ball park with this one.
If you are at all interested in the media ownership issue it is a must read. Adam is currently a Senior Fellow with the Progress & Freedom Foundation and Director of its Center for Digital Media Freedom.