compulsory reading, intellectual property rights, media, Political Theory, web 2.0

De-Merging Patriotism

Last year, Michael Wolf, a director in McKinsey�s New York office, published an article in the WSJ (here via McKinseyQuarterly) explaing that market forces – especially a sluggish advertising market and the general trend to digital distribution – would continue to pressure media companies to merge into ever larger entities. Mr Wolf’s article was triggered by a US appeals court decision to allow media companies to own both cable systems and local broadcasters in the same market, a decision which he seemingly supported on grounds of value creating synergies, while knowing very well that the media are not just one business among others –

„Critics of media concentration will now wonder how much more wheeling and dealing can go on before there are but one or two juggernauts controlling every image, syllable, and sound of information and entertainment.“

He also explained why he believed that more hierarchy would not yet pose a problem for the world –

„Actually, the industry has a long way to go yet before it reaches that point. There are more than 100 media companies worldwide, with more than $1 billion in revenues; and entertainment and media are still fragmented compared with other industries such as pharmaceuticals or aerospace.“

That was last year. Just when the whole Iraq thing started. And last year, I think I agreed with Mr. Wolf’s efficiency conclusion and pharmaceuticals analogy, arguing like he that

„[w]hile the media mogul archetype may be Charles Foster Kane, the better analogy is Jack Welch in his early GE days, in pursuit of strategic fit and maximum returns…“ –

or, to make the argument more fun, along the lines of Michael Kinsley’s brilliant article „Six Degrees of America Online“ (which is now premium, how surprising…).

Kinsley’s still rather useful point was that hierarchical control of today’s media conglomerates is probably not as dangerous as many may think because, well, it’s incestous and competitive at the same time. AOL owns a chunk of this parent of that joint venture with Microsoft who are in bed with Murdoch in Asia and cooperate with the state run television in Bulgaria. And never forget the promiscous EMI. Kinsley had a point. Upstream or downstream, the convergence value chain does look like a conglomerate soap opera. Or, if you prefer the same conclusion in McKinsey-speech –

For a German example of this just look at some of the people who are going to be on the ProSiebenSat1 Media oversight board once Haim Saban will have finalised his purchase of roughly 25% of the German eyeballs in early June this year. His Malibu neighbour Thomas Gottschalk, who’s a host on ZDF television, and Helmut Thoma, former CEO of RTL+, part of the Bertelsmann owned RTL group, for which he is still apparently still consulting.

But now, after seeing the enourmous power the media had in establishing what behavior is right or wrong on both sides of the transatlantic media rift, I no longer agree. Of course, it is not hierarchical control of large chunks of access to people’s brains per se that is problematic. But I’d say, it does become a huge problem if some big players succeed in setting the agenda for everyone else. Think of the American „WarNow!LetsGoAndKickSomeAss“, or its European antithesis, „NoWarEverBushIsSaddamInDisguise“.

There comes a point when deescalation is just no longer possible, when myths of reality established by the media become an imperative for themselves. When whatever could be true becomes true by pure repetition. And having more, and more smaller, media entitites will allow for a slowdown of this process.

Media is a content business where there are economies of scale primarily in the realm of risk structuring and distribution. Economics of scope primarily exist in cross-media publishing and promotion. So there are reasons for integration. But having witnessed the consequences of the described mechanism on a previously unintelligible scale, I believe efficiency considerations for media corpoations have to be looked at from a different angle if a merger is considered the appropriate therapy.

I am not proposing any policy here. But I’d say media concentration control has become more important now than ever. I am not proposing state interventionism per se – that would probably cause as many problems as it would be trying to solve – but there must be other ways to ease the economic pressures than merging. Less taxes for tv? I don’t know. But I think this is an issue that should be put on the public agenda here, there, and everywhere rather sooner than later.

Having just written this, I can already hear people scream – yeah, but what about the end of the bandwidth restriction, what about the internet, what about those amazing new context filtering technology, blogging – isn’t that offsetting the Murdochs of this world?

Hmm, well. As much as I like doing this, I’d have to say ‚blogging-schmogging‚. The internet is not as decentralised as one would believe (how many internet booksellers do you know off-hand?), and for the time being – despite all the blog-bubble-induced discussion how it is changing the face of journalism on this planent – much of blogging is predominantly a different, extremely useful, qualitative (ie, non statistical) kind of collaborative filtering (like the amazon recommendations), bringing together people – „Other people who looked at this blog also read this article in the NYTimes.“ I’m not saying it can’t work.

But it cannot offset the reality shaping power of conventional publishing. At least not yet.

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