Media Monopoly

April 7, 2006 • Media Economics • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 07, 2006

It was less than 25 years ago when US media researcher Ben Bagdikian stirred a worldwide sensation with the publication of his book. He predicted that in a not too distant future a mere “handful” of big media corporations would exert total control over “what the average American sees and hears” and went on to foretell that those media behemoths would not only direct the news streams in the USA, but on the whole planet. The ingeniously ambiguous title of Bagdikian’s book: The Media Monopoly.

Since that time, the game of “Media Monopoly” the industry is engaged in is being played with evermore enthusiasm. And yet, Bagdikian’s predictions have only partially come true, if at all. How the power relations between the 50 Global Players are constantly shifting and changing nevertheless is quite a sight to behold.

As Lutz Hachmeister and Günther Rager show in the latest edition of their reference book on the 50 biggest media groups in the world, the very big ones – in line with Bagdikian’s predictions – have become even bigger. The Top Ten boosted their annual sales volume from €70 billion (1995) to €170 billion (2004), an increase of almost 250 percent; compared to “only” 200 percent for the rest of the Top 50. This is especially noteworthy given the fact that this decade includes the years after the bursting of the dot.com bubble, which ushered in one of the gravest crises the media sector has ever seen.

The three biggest US media corporations, Time Warner, Walt Disney and Viacom, managed to defend their top positions – as did Rupert Murdoch’s Australia-based News Corporation. In contrast, the biggest Europeans, Bertelsmann and Vivendi, had to step down from the second to the fifth and the seventh to the ninth rank, respectively.

Swiss media group Ringier has not yet managed to reach one of the top positions among the world’s Top 50, neither have German companies, with the notable exception of Bertelsmann. Springer AG, which made the headlines for weeks with its takeover bid for ProSiebenSat.1, downright plummeted from position 28 to 44, Burda, Holtzbrinck, WAZ group and ProSiebenSat.1 all rank among the very lowest. Mediaset, the media conglomerate owned by Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, on the other hand, managed to work its way up from rank 35 to 29.

Microsoft no longer appears on the list, since its activities as content provider have not produced the expected results and Google, even though already on its way up in 2004, so far has not reached the Top 50.

From Asia only five (Japanese) companies have made their way to the world’s Top 50. This fact alone let’s us expect many more surprising twists and turns from this game of Media Monopoly. However, should Hachmeister and Rager decide to take stock of the media industry again, sometime between 2010 and 2020, it is likely that, despite all trends towards concentration, there still will be some 50 Big Players around – instead of the Top Five Bagdikian once predicted.

Lutz Hachmeister / Günther Rager: Wer beherrscht die Medien? Die grössten Medienkonzerne der Welt. Verlag C. H. Beck, München 2005.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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