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Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.

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The State of Media Ownership and Media

Markets: Competition or Concentration and
Why Should We Care?
Dwayne Winseck*
Ottawa, Ontario

This article presents a global overview of the state of communications media
ownership and markets. The primary issue at stake is whether or not markets and
ownership are becoming more or less concentrated. After reviewing contrasting
views on this issue, I suggest that the question turns on whether or not we
consider ‘numerical diversity’ (the number of channels available in any given area)
versus ‘source diversity’ (a measure of the number of media owners in any given
area). Drawing on recent data I suggest that while there is undoubtably greater
‘numerical diversity’, we are seeing – within countries, regionally and globally –
greater concentration at the level of ‘source diversity’. While new media, especially
the Internet, open up unprecedented opportunities for people to access and
distribute information, the emergence of a powerful nexus between both ‘old’
and ‘new’ media means that the character of media ownership and markets still
matters greatly. This nexus of ownership and market power spans different
segments of the media and is qualitatively different from previous times. These
factors have an important influence on the evolution of media technologies
and markets, the work of media professionals and the character of information and
media content.

A new journal needs to start out on a high note, addressing important

issues in a timely and accessible way. Questions about media ownership
and the state of media markets, within nations and worldwide, fit that bill.
They are perennial issues, as well. In the past few years, and even as I
write, Australia, Britain, Canada, Mexico and the USA, among many
others, have relaxed their media ownership rules. Do, or will, these
changes foster healthier competition, as advocates claim, or even more
consolidation, as critics charge? What effect will they have on media
content, media professionals, the evolution of media technologies and
the role of communications media in society, democratic or otherwise?
These questions are the core themes of this article.
Several factors have propelled structural changes in communication and
media markets, within countries and globally. These factors include the
© 2008 The Author
Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets 35

perceived threat of new media technologies, the relaxation of media

concentration rules, and the communication and media industries’ pursuit
of greater vertical and horizontal integration in the belief that doing so
will help them to realize significant economies of scale and scope. The
amalgamation of Time Warner and AOL in 2000, the merger of Britain’s
two largest television companies – Carlton and Granada – in 2003 and
GE/NBC’s takeover of Universal Studios in 2004, exemplify how the
structure of the media business has changed in the last decade. The looser
government rules that permitted these deals have pleased media owners
and financial markets, but they have provoked strong criticism as well.
Criticism has come from an unusually large cross-section of the public, and
can be seen in several recent inquiries into whether media concentration
is compromising the potential contributions of the media to public life.
Government bodies have conducted three such inquiries in the last 4 years
in Canada alone, versus none in the previous 25.

The 500-channel universe and marketplace democracy

In the eyes of many, the emergence of new television networks and the
explosive growth of cable and satellite channels – MTV, HBO, ESPN,
CNN, Fox News and Canal1, A&E, Al-Jazeera, to name just a few – offers
an unprecedented abundance of choice. The 500-channel universe is, if
not already here, just around the corner. Even the half-dozen major
Hollywood Studios – Columbia, Disney, Paramount, Twentieth Century
Fox, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros – appear to be losing their iron-clad
grip over American and international film audiences, with their share of
the US market tumbling from 85% in 1994 to just over 66% in 2004.
Throw into this mix the explosive growth of the Internet, with its endless
well of web pages, news sources, music and video downloading services,
and the free-wheeling commentary of innumerable blogs, and the idea of
concentrated media markets sounds anachronistic. Many believe that new
technologies have rendered limits on media concentration obsolete. As
Leonard Asper, owner and chief executive officer of Canwest, the second largest
multimedia firm in Canada and the Network Ten in Australia, quipped
before a Canadian inquiry into media ownership, the ‘media are more
fragmented and less concentrated than ever before ... [P]eople who believe
otherwise ... also probably believe that Elvis is still alive’ (quoted in Foss
2002, B4). Or as media economist Compaine (2001) states, ‘the democracy
of the marketplace may be flawed but it is ... getting better, not worse’.
Most scholars agree that there is a wider range of media available to a
greater number of people than in the past. However, some also claim that
media markets are becoming more concentrated. For instance, over the
course of six editions of The (New) Media Monopoly, former journalist and
past Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of
California, Berkeley, Ben Bagdikian, has written that although there are
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
36 The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets

thousands of companies involved in the media business, the number of

corporations that control half or more of the broadcasting, newspaper
and film industries in the USA has fallen from 50 in 1984, to 23 in 1990,
to just 5 in 2004 (Bagdikian 2004). Robert McChesney (2000) concurs,
arguing that by 1999 just six conglomerates controlled most of the media
market within the USA, and even internationally.

Measuring media concentration

How do observers ostensibly looking at the same thing arrive at such wildly
contrasting conclusions? The answer is that they look at different things.
Those who see more competition tend to focus on numerical diversity, or
the number of available channels in any given area. Those who see greater
consolidation, in contrast, usually consider source diversity, a measure of the
number of media owners in any given market. As Murdock observes, ‘[i]t
is possible to greatly increase the number of channels ... without significantly
extending diversity. More does not necessarily mean different’ (1982, 120).
Concentration ratios are a standard tool used to measure whether media
markets are becoming more or less consolidated. They focus on the
proportion of markets controlled by participants in specific media markets
and across the media as a whole. Concentration ratios set thresholds to
judge the competitiveness of markets, with the control of more than 25%
market share by three firms (C3), 50% or more by four firms (C4) and
75% or more by eight firms (C8) indicating high levels of concentration.
When concentration is high, there is a high potential for big players to
use anti-competitive and collusive behaviour to squelch competition.
Using this method, Albarran’s (2003) study of media markets in the
USA found strong evidence of concentration in the music market
(C4 = 98%), television networks (C4 = 84%), film market (C4 = 78%)
and cable television networks (C4 = 61%). In terms of national newspaper
ownership, however, the top four owners controlled just under the 50%
threshold (48%), although 98% of American cities have only one daily
newspaper. A recent study of media ownership by the Canadian Senate
(2004) found similar trends. It found that the top five newspaper groups’
share of circulation grew from 73% in 1994 to 79% by 2003. In terms of
television, the top five groups owned 68% of all stations in 2000, more
than double the total 20 years earlier. Their share of English-speaking
audiences for conventional as well as cable and satellite channels also rose
to one half in 2002, from 42% 5 years earlier (pp. 18–20). Bell Globe
Media’s 2006 takeover of the CHUM media group will raise these levels
even higher yet, if it succeeds. That, however, will turn on the outcome
of an inquiry into media concentration called by the new head of the
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)
in the wake of the Bell Globe Media/CHUM deal and Canwest and
Goldman Sachs’ joint bid to take over Alliance Atlantis.
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets 37

The Canadian case is extreme, but conditions in Mexico are worse.

Mexico’s largest private television network, Televisa, controls three quarters
of all advertising revenue and the family ownership groups behind it – the
Azcarraga family and Carlos Slim Helú, the world’s third richest man –
are so powerful that they have been able to, for all intents and purposes,
write the new laws that were suppose to drastically reform the communica-
tions and media business in Mexico (El Economista 2006; Gale Group
2007; Noticias Fiancieras, 2006). Instead, the Federal Radio and Television
Law passed in April 2006 and the government’s recent ‘convergence policy’
protect the duopoly held by Televisa and TV Azteca in Mexico’s tele-
vision market, while giving them carte blanche to enter new markets.
Knowledgeable cynics refer to the new law as ‘Televisa’s Law’.
The situation in Mexico reflects conditions throughout Latin America.
While military authoritarian regimes were replaced by illiberal democracies
in the 1990s, throughout the continent the communications media are still
controlled by the oligarchs, typically with tight ties to the politico-military
establishment. In Brazil, Globo holds a position similar to Televisa’s in
Mexico. Family-owned firms with interests stretching across the press,
broadcasting, music, the Internet, cable and telecoms compete in imperfect
duopolistic markets in Argentina (Grupo Clarin and Telefónica), Colombia
(Grupo Santo Domingo and Grupo Ardilla Lule) and Venezuela (Grupo
Phelps and Grupo Cisneros) (Protzel 2005, 107–108; Waisbord 2002).
Similar patterns apply globally. Using a slightly modified version of the
North American Industrial Classification System and electronic databases
for companies in the broadcasting, film, cable and publishing sectors,
reveals similar trends for global markets. While the size of the global
media market in 2005 was a staggering $258 billion and consists of
hundreds of firms, the ‘big 10’ global media firms account for just over
80% of all revenues. The ‘big 10’, ranked by revenues, are listed in Table 1.

Table 1 Top 10 Global Media Companies (by Revenue)

Firm Revenue Ownership National base

(billion USD)

1. Time Warner $43.7 Diversified USA

2. Disney $31.9 Diversified USA
3. Bertelsmann $28.9 Bertelsmann/Mohn Germany
4. News Corp $25.3 Murdoch and others USA
5. Viacom $24.1 Redstone family USA
6. Comcast $22.7 Roberts family USA
7. NBC/Universal $14.0 Diversified USA
8. Pearson $7.5 Diversified UK
9. Fuji TV Network $5.0 Unclear Japan
10. ITV $3.9 Diversified UK

© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x

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38 The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets

This evidence suggests that markets are becoming more consolidated.

The top 10 global media companies are also among the largest corporations
in the world, with 7 of the top 10 listed on Fortune (2006) magazine’s list
of the global 500. They are also all media conglomerates, meaning that
they operate across many different media markets, including television,
film, newspapers, publishing and the Internet, where their websites are
now among some of the most visited sites worldwide. There is also a
surprising number of ‘owner-controlled’ companies among the big 10:
Bertelsmann, News Corp, Viacom and Comcast. In terms of revenue,
these multimedia firms dwarf their smaller regional and national counterparts,
many of whom operate in only one or two media sectors. The big 10 are
also solidly based in the USA (6), Britain (2), Germany (1) and Japan (1).
In addition, while boasting of reaching hundreds of millions of homes
across the world through channels such as MTV, A&E, Showtime,
FoxNews, CNN, Canal+ and so forth, these firms derive the lion’s share
of their revenues from their home markets and then from Europe, North
America and Japan. Only a fraction of their revenues comes from the rest
of the world.1

Mediasaurus: Mapping the terrain

Recent media mergers and acquisitions are notable in terms of their sheer
size. This is perhaps best illustrated by the unprecedented, but ill-fated,
AOL and Time Warner deal, initially valued at $166 billion in 2000 but
that fell to $106 billion a year later, and even less since. A few transactions
have also been transnational in scope, such as the purchase of Universal
Studios by the French diversified conglomerate, Vivendi, in 2000 ($35
billion), although the failure of that deal spawned yet another round of
consolidation when GE/NBC acquired Universal Studios in 2004. The
current wave of consolidation has also resulted in unprecedented com-
mon ownership and vertical integration between the major US television
networks and Hollywood studios: Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox
Network (1985), Disney with ABC (1995), Time Warner and the WB
Network (1995), CBS and Viacom (1999) and NBC/Universal (2004).
These alignments fundamentally distinguish the state of the US media
today from any other time in US media history (Kunz 2007). The acquisi-
tion of independent firms, such as Disney and Viacom’s purchase of Miramax
and DreamWorks, respectively, in 2005 also undercut the influence of
independents that had been seriously chipping away at Hollywood’s
dominance of USA and international film markets over the past two
Vertical integration across the supply and distribution of film and
television programs has three effects. First, it gives Hollywood studios
secure access to more distribution outlets, through conventional and
satellite and cable television channels. Television networks, in return, gain
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets 39

access to a steady source of film and television programs. Whereas the big
three networks obtained most of their programming from outside sources
and the rest ‘in-house’ in the 1980s, today nearly 80% of new series are
acquired in-house. Second, locking up access to both of these critical
resources – content and distribution – helps media firms manage the
inherently risky nature of the media business. Third, however, this hold
over content and distribution creates a significant barrier for independents
and rivals, and, thus, limits creativity and the diversity of the marketplace
for cultural commodities (Croteau and Hoynes 2006, 91).
More relaxed attitudes toward concentration has propelled the consol-
idation of television station ownership and acquisitions across the media in
other countries, as well. In Britain, such attitudes underpinned the Labour
government’s decision to permit the two largest regional television
networks – Granada and Carlton – to combine into one broadcasting
powerhouse in 2003, after disastrous investments in digital terrestrial
television brought both to the brink of bankruptcy. Likewise, the Australian
government’s announcement in late 2006 that it would loosen its rules on
cross-media and foreign ownership the next spring sparked ‘a merger and
acquisition frenzy’ (Forbes 2007). The results followed swiftly. The Network
Ten became a takeover target of the secretive and well-endowed US-based
Carlyle Group. Another US private equity investment firm, Kohlberg
Kravis Roberts, acquired a sizeable stake in the Seven Network, which,
in turn, allowed its owner Kerry Stokes to expand his ownership stake in
Western Australian News. A group of rural newspapers was acquired by
Fairfax Publishing, a firm in which Rupert Murdoch holds a 15% stake.
While pitched as a tool to break up the ‘family compact’ at the head
of the Australian media, the new law ushered in a series of deals worth
$14 billion before it even came into effect. The effect of which has been
to strongly reinforce rather than replace Australia’s leading media moguls:
Rupert Murdoch, James Packer and Kerry Stokes (Maguire 2007; Australian
Associated Press, 2007).
Similar trends took root in Canada just before the turn of the century,
much to the benefit of its three biggest media conglomerates: Canwest,
Quebecor and Bell Globe Media. And there are few signs that this trend
is about to stop. Indeed, in late 2006, Bell Globe Media launched a bid
to acquire the CHUM Media Group – the fifth largest broadcasting group
in the country, while in early 2007, Canwest joined New York investment
banking firm, Goldman Sachs, to buy Alliance Atlantis – the biggest
distributor of film and television programs in Canada (e.g. the CSI series).
The changes have solidified these companies’ role within Canadian television
and newspaper markets, while permitting them to expand into new markets.
Canwest’s takeover of Alliance Atlantis – which is also one of largest
specialty satellite and cable channel operators in Canada – not only carved
out a big role for the firm in the film and television business but gave it
a controlling stake in a total of 20 specialty cable and satellite channels,
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
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40 The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets

and a minority interest in six others. Bell Globe Media’s takeover of

CHUM will, if approved, have similar outcomes. Thus, even though two
recent parliamentary reports raised concerns about the state of media
concentration, and the CRTC has announced that it will turn its
review of Bell Globe Media’s attempt to purchase CHUM into a full-scale
examination of such issues, this has done little to halt concentration
within media markets or across the media as a whole (Standing Senate
Committee on Transport and Communications, 2004; Standing Committee
on Canadian Heritage, House of Commons, Canada, 2003; CRTC, 2007).

Explaining the consolidation of media ownership and markets

The consolidation of media markets can be explained in several ways.
First, some argue that the consolidation of media markets has historically
occurred in cycles, first between the 1880s and the first decade of 20th
century, then in the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s and from the late 1990s
until the present. While the most recent wave appears to have peaked in
the USA, the account presented above suggests that it is far from over
elsewhere. Yet, more than generic notions of cyclical waves, there appear
to be three critical forces underpinning the recent bout of consolidation:
regulation and policy, finance and banking interests, and technology. The
first as been amply alluded to above, hence, at this point, attention will
be given to the growing influence of financial markets on media firms
since the late 1990s. Media firms turned to financial markets during this
time more than ever in the past, as Picard (2002) notes. Indeed, at its peak
in 1999, over half of all venture capital in the USA poured into the
communications and media sector (p. 175). While that role in the USA
has ebbed, private equity and international finance groups such as Kohlberg
Kravis Roberts, the Carlyle Group and Goldman Sachs continue to play
a key role in the financing of media transactions in Australia, Canada and,
undoubtedly, elsewhere.
The growing role of banking, equity and financial firms can also be
seen in the fact that such interests have parlayed their role as suppliers of
finance into positions on the boards of directors at media companies. This
trend is particularly pronounced among the ‘big 10’ global media companies
listed above, but is also visible at second-tier regional and national media
firms as well. This is different from the early 1990s, when there was much
heavier representation drawn from the ranks of people with past and
present links to the state (Winseck 1991, 65).2 In simple terms, during
this time finance replaced the state as the primary reservoir from which
corporate directors at media companies were drawn. What are the con-
sequences of this recomposition of power within media firms?
First, it appears that there has been a rebalancing between the interests
of finance and those of the state over this time. Second, the elevated role
of finance in media markets has been translated into greater potential for
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets 41

control within media corporations, largely in terms of overall corporate

policy and strategy rather than the day-to-day operations of media profes-
sionals or content (Murdock 1982). Third, financial markets are renowned
for their short-term bias, a bias that is distinct from the longer-term
horizons of media organizations, or governments for that matter, rather
than short-term profits for investors. The hyperaccelerated pace of finance
is also at odds with the temporal rhythms of media and cultural production,
which tend to be strung out over a longer and less certain timespan
(Garnham 1990). Perhaps most importantly of all, financial markets abhor
risk and prefer specific types of firms, in this case vertically integrated
multimedia conglomerates, Internet companies and those with a deep and
extensive treasure trove of content (Picard 2002). Seen in this light, financial
markets not only fuelled a wave of mergers and acquisitions, but the
creation of specific types of media firms: vertically integrated multimedia
conglomerates that possess a large library of media content.
However, while financial markets fuelled a wave of consolidation, they
also spawned a speculative bubble that came back to haunt them. The end
result of this process was the spectacular collapse of some firms – WorldCom,
Adelphia Communications, Hollinger Inc., Vivendi. Others such as Time
Warner continue to be the target of investigations into corporate malfeasance,
setting aside billions to pay for potential legal penalties that have cut
deeply into profits. Still others, such as AT&T and WorldCom were
forced to jettison their stake in Latin American telecom and cable markets
– a process that redounded to the benefit of the Mexican telecoms and
media mogul, Carlos Slim, in particular, and a few others similarly placed.
All of which is to say that takeovers are no more likely to succeed in the
media business than in any other area of the economy, where about three
quarters of all acquisitions fail to deliver on the promises made. Nonetheless,
an enduring monument to the turn-of-the-21st century bubble
remains: the greater proportion of the media business accounted for by
conglomerates. Even some media economists who do not usually take a
critical stance, see empire-building, finance and personal hubris as having
become driving forces behind the consolidation of media markets, alongside
traditional concerns with profits (Demers and Merskin 2000).
The consolidation of media markets also occurs through the web of
alliances that exist among the media companies.3 Such alliances do not
reduce the number of media players, but they do substitute cooperation
for the sharp edge of a truly competitive marketplace. Time Warner and
Viacom’s decision to close down their rival networks – the WB and UPN,
respectively – in 2006, while launching their jointly owned CW network,
offers one such example. Time Warner also divided several cable systems
with Comcast that they had acquired from AT&T after that firm abandoned
its push into the cable television business in 2003 and from Adelphia
Communications in 2004 after the firm’s owners pled guilty to pillaging
the corporation for personal ends. The effect of both cases has been to
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
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42 The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets

reduce competition in television and cable markets. Time Warner is also

linked to Comcast through a venture with Cox Communication and
Advance Newhouse to develop a video-on-demand service, while Comcast
launched a children’s channel – KidsSprout – with the American public
broadcaster, PBS, in 2005. A cursory review of, for example, Disney’s
alliance with animation studio, Pixar, and Apple Computer, Bertelsmann
and Sony’s joint-ownership of BMG music group, Sony’s jointly owned
satellite television service with News Corp in Japan, and the latter’s joint
ventures with groups in Australia, Canada, Latin America, Asia and Britain
covering specialty and digital broadcast services as well as music and video
download services, highlights the extent to which cooperation is at least
as important as competition in the media business.
These strategies are also used to counteract the difficulty of creating
content for fickle audiences and the perceived threat of new technologies
(Wasko 2004, 131–35). The risky nature of the business can be seen in
the fact that the failure rate of media products is far higher than in other
industries, with the number of unsuccessful television series, films, books
and music CDs vastly exceeding the number of successful ones. Hollywood
releases hundreds of films every year, but only a few are box office
winners. However, since the cost of reproducing media content is low,
firms can achieve economies of scale by delivering their content to as
many audiences across as many media as possible. In summary, the ability
to achieve substantial economies of scale and the desire to limit risks
propels the creation of media conglomerates (Flew 2007; Kunz 2007, 10–13).
Media firms also have a history of using deep pockets and litigation to
reduce the threat of new technologies, from the buying up of competing
patents in the early days of radio and film to recent lawsuits against new
music and video downloading services. While this continues to be the
case, they are also using acquisitions and alliances to ensure that new
technologies offer more opportunities than threats. The annual reports of
the major global media conglomerates reveals the shift, notably with
News Corp’s purchase of the social networking site MySpace ($580
billion), gaming and entertainment site ($620 million) and the
top sports site in the USA, Scout Media ($60 million) in 2005. Similarly,
ITV acquired the eighth-ranked site in Britain, Friends Reunited ($200
million) in 2005, while Viacom bought Neopets ($160 million), a children’s
website in the USA, and in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The
global media firms have also forged alliances with cellular telephone
companies and computer firms such as Apple and Microsoft to stake out
a key role in new mobile television, music and film download services.
While the largest such deal in the bubble era occurred in
2006 when Google took over the video-sharing site, YouTube ($1.65
billion), that transaction was preceded by agreements with NBC Universal,
Sony BMG, Time Warner, Viacom and News Corp that aimed to achieve
three goals: first, to implement content identification technology that
© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x
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The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets 43

helps these companies maximize control over their content; second, to

share traffic and advertising revenue; and third, to share access to Google’s
technology among these groups.4
These agreements will not allow these firms to obtain ‘perfect control’
over their content. However, they will help to insure that Google and
emerging services do not dislodge the largest global media conglomerates
from their dominant position in the media economy. These arrangements
also give ‘old’ media firms a strong hand in shaping the evolution of new
technologies. Those who believe that new technologies are inherently
antagonistic to concentrations of economic, political and cultural power
ignore these points. The Internet is not immune from these tendencies
and this can be seen in Google’s overwhelming dominance of the search
engine market (56%), with the next three companies – Yahoo!, MSN and
Time Warner/AOL – accounting for roughly 35%, yielding a concentration
ratio of over 91% – far exceeding the standard of concentration introduced
above (Nielsen Netratings 2007). It is this reality that has allowed Google
to become such a powerful nexus in the unfolding relationship between
the ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, a phenomenon that we might call a ‘Googlopoly’.
The staying power of the global media giants can be seen in the fact
that Time Warner, Disney and NBC possess four out of the top 10
Internet news sites in the USA, while the New York Times, Tribune newspa-
pers, Knight Ridder and USA Today take up another four. The fact that the
remaining leading news sites rely on these sources as well as a few global
news agencies for most of their news content further magnifies this influence.
Indeed, producing almost no original news of their own, Yahoo! and
Google do little to diversify the range of available news sources. These
patterns are also true globally, where the same firms dominate, with the
exception of the BBC and three Chinese sites, the latter of which all rely
solely on reports from the state-controlled Chinese media (Comscore
2006; Paterson 2005, 157– 60).

Explaining the consequences of media concentration

What are the consequences of this growing consolidation? Many critics
argue that the most significant consequence lies in the ability of a handful
of media owners to exert influence on media content and, thus, people’s
view of the world. This is a crucial issue, but it is also one that is fraught
with difficulties and also, I believe, rather like trying to draw a camel
through the eye of a needle. One of the difficulties with measuring the
impact of media ownership on content stems from the changing organiza-
tional structure of large media conglomerates. Demers and Merskin
(2000) make this point when they argue that the potential for media
owners to influence content has been sharply diminished by the rise of
the modern corporation. Under these conditions, ownership is usually widely
dispersed, with actual control resting in the hands of expert managers, with
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44 The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets

media workers relatively free to do as they please within the limits of

professional standards and good business practice. In general, this claim has
merit and mirrors trends in the growth of publicly traded media conglom-
erates, as discussed above. Nonetheless, it is important to note that four
of the top-10 global media firms – News Corp (Rupert Murdoch),
Bertelsmann (heirs to founder, Carl Bertelsmann), Viacom (Sumner
Redstone) and Comcast (Roberts family) – are still owner controlled. In
Canada, 11 of the top 12 firms are still owner controlled. The phenomenon
is also prominent, as we have seen, throughout Latin America and Australia,
among other places. In short, it is far too early to sound the death knell
of media moguls who have the potential to use their outlets to pursue
political and ideological objectives. However, discovering the direct links
between owners, content and people’s beliefs is fraught with difficulties,
including the anecdotal nature of the evidence and the well-known limits
of media effects research.
A larger view of the issues considers the consequences of consolidation
on the allocation of resources within media firms. While some believe
that the deeper pockets of media conglomerates allows them to commit
more resources to production, news gathering and so forth, a counter-
argument is that resources are being diverted from these goals to meet the
high cost of financing mergers and acquisitions. As an example of this,
the merger between Granada and Carlton television in Britain (2003) led
swiftly to the closing of the 24-hour ITV News Channel and the centraliza-
tion of news production for all of its other channels in London. NBC
recently similarly announced that it is cutting its workforce by 700 people,
eliminating news bureaus in favour of a centralized operation in New
York to feed the NBC network, MSNBC, CNBC and its Spanish-
language network, Telemundo, and replacing high-cost dramatic programs
in early prime time with cheaper ‘reality-tv’ series and game shows.
Overall, the number of television network journalists has fallen by over
one third since 1985 in the USA, while international news bureaus have
been slashed (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2006). This trend is
especially acute in Canada, where the number of international news bureaus
operated by Canwest has fallen from nine after its series of acquisitions
in the late 1990s to two. The magnitude of such changes differs between
media firms, but the trend is toward fully integrated news operations that
serve multiple channels, budget cuts, smaller journalistic staffs, fewer foreign
bureaus and the replacement of high-cost dramatic programs with a
smaller number of ‘blockbusters’ and more low-budget shows.

Media concentration: Some concluding thoughts

These trends are bound by audience tastes and the complexity of the
media business, but several points remain to be made in any final assessment
of the consolidation of media markets. First, audiences now have more
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The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets 45

media channels than ever, but source diversity is shrinking. Second, media
professionals are experiencing vast changes in the quantity and quality of
work available to them and this has created deep rifts within the media.
Media workers in the USA, Canada, Britain and many other countries
report that bottom-line pressures now have a greater impact on their work
than in the past, that the influence of owners, managers and advertisers is
increasing and that their trust in media executives is declining (Project for
Excellence in Journalism, 2006). Lastly, the structure and feel of the media
is being subtly altered as media organizations strive to maximize control
over their content through aggressive litigation, pressuring legislatures to
expand the scope and duration of copyright laws and implement digital
rights management technologies that increase audience surveillance and
set limits around what people can and cannot do with the new media.
The upshot of these changes is a subtle shift in the architecture of the
media in favour of closure and control versus the values of openness and
real diversity that are the sine qua non of democratic societies. For all these
reasons, media ownership and concentration remains an absolutely critical
issue, with not only concerns of bias and the abuse of personalized power at
stake, but the future of media evolution and potential of democracy itself.

Short Biography
Dwayne Winseck is Associate Professor at the School of Journalism and
Communication, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. His research focuses
on the political economy of communication, new media, media history,
communication policy as well as theories of democracy and global commun-
ication. He has published extensively in journals and the press and is the
author or co-editor of four books, most recently, with Robert M. Pike
Communication and Empire: Media, Markets and Globalization, 1860–1930
(2007, Duke University Press). His other books are: Reconvergence: A Political
Economy of Telecommunications in Canada (Hampton Press, 1998); Democratizing
Communication: Comparative Perspectives on Information and Power (co-edited
with Mashoed Bailie, Hampton Press, 1997); and Media in Global Context
(co-edited with Oliver Boyd-Barrett, Annabelle Sreberny and Jim Mckenna,
Edward Arnold, 1997). He has also published numerous book chapters and
journal articles in the Canadian Journal of Communication, Javnost/the Public,
the International Communication Gazette, New Media and Society, the European
Journal of Communication, Media, Culture and Society, and elsewhere. Before
arriving in Ottawa in 1998, he lived and taught in Britain, the People’s
Republic of China, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the USA.

* Correspondence address: Rm 320 St. Patrick’s Building, 1125 Colonel By Dr., Ottawa, ON
K0A 1T0, Canada. Email:

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46 The State of Media Ownership and Media Markets
These observations are based on data from the Annual Reports published by each of the media
companies referred to here.
The analysis here is based on my earlier research, as cited, which looked at the annual reports
of major US media companies in 1990 and then again for the ‘big 10’ global media companies
in the same sources for 2005 and 2006.
The following paragraph is drawn from information contained in each of the ‘big 10’ global
media firms’ annual reports for 2005 and 2006.
The following paragraph is drawn from information contained in each of the ‘big 10’ global
media firms’ annual reports for 2005 and 2006.

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© 2008 The Author Sociology Compass 2/1 (2008): 34–47, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00061.x

Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd