The Global Media Giants
The nine firms that dominate the world
by Robert McChesney
from Extra the magazine of FAIR, Nov/Dec 1997
A specter now haunts the world: a global commercial media
system dominated by a small number of super-powerful, mostly U.S.-based
transnational media corporations. It is a system that works to
advance l the cause of the global market and promote commercial
values, while denigrating journalism and culture not conducive
to the immediate bottom line or long-run corporate interests.
It is a disaster for anything but the most superficial notion
of democracy-a democracy where, to paraphrase John Jay's maxim,
those who own the world ought to govern it.
The global commercial system is a very recent development.
Until the 1980s, media systems were generally national in scope.
While there have been imports of books, films, music and TV shows
for decades, the basic broadcasting systems and newspaper industries
were domestically owned and regulated. Beginning in the 1980s,
pressure from the IMF, World Bank and U.S. government to deregulate
and privatize media and communication systems coincided with new
satellite and digital technologies, resulting in the rise of transnational
How quickly has the global media system emerged? The two largest
media firms in the world, Time Warner and Disney, generated around
15 percent of their income outside of the United States in 1990.
By 1997, that figure was in the 30 percent-35 percent range. Both
firms expect to do a majority of their business abroad at some
point in the next decade.
The global media system is now dominated by a first tier of
nine giant firms. The five largest are Time Warner (1997 sales:
$24 billion), Bertelsmann ($15 billion), Disney ($22 billion),
Viacom ($13 billion), and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation ($11
Besides needing global scope to compete, the rules of thumb
for global media giants are twofold: First, get bigger so you
dominate markets and your competition can't buy you out. Firms
like Disney and Time Warner have almost tripled in size this decade.
Second, have interests in numerous media industries, such
as film production, book publishing, music, TV channels and networks,
retail stores, amusement parks, magazines, newspapers and the
like. The profit whole for the global media giant can be vastly
greater than the sum of the media parts. A film, for example,
should also generate a soundtrack, a book, and merchandise, and
possibly spin-off TV shows, CD-ROMs, video games and amusement
park rides. Firms that do not have conglomerated media holdings
simply cannot compete in this market.
The first tier is rounded out by TCI, the largest U.S. cable
company that also has U.S. and global media holdings in scores
of ventures too numerous to mention. The other three first-tier
glob al media firms are all part of much larger industrial corporate
powerhouses: General Electric (1997 sales: $80 billion), owner
of NBC; Sony (1997 sales: $48 billion), owner of Columbia &
TriStar Pictures and major recording interests; and Seagram (1997
sales: $14 billion), owner of Universal film and music interests.
The media holdings of these last four firms do between $6 billion
and $9 billion in business per year. While they are not as diverse
as the media holdings of the first five global media giants, these
four firms have global distribution and production in the areas
where they compete. And firms like Sony and GE have the resources
to make deals to get a lot bigger very quickly if they so desire.
Behind these firms is a second tier of some three or four
dozen media firms that do between $1 billion and $8 billion per
year in media-related business. These firms tend to have national
or regional strongholds or to specialize in global niche markets.
About one-half of them come from North America, including the
likes of Westinghouse (CBS), the New York Times Co., Hearst, Comcast
and Gannett. Most of the rest come from Europe, with a handful
based in East Asia and Latin America.
In short, the overwhelming majority (in revenue terms) of
the world's film production, TV show production, cable channel
ownership, cable and satellite system ownership, book publishing,
magazine publishing and music production is provided by these
50 or so firms, and the first nine firms thoroughly dominate many
of these sectors. By any standard of democracy, such a concentration
of media power is troubling, if not unacceptable.
But that hardly explains how concentrated and uncompetitive
this glob al media power actually is. In addition, these firms
are all actively engaged in equity joint ventures where they share
ownership of concerns with their "competitors" so as
to reduce competition and risk. Each of the nine first-tier media
giants, for example, has joint ventures with, on average, two-thirds
of the other eight first-tier media giants. And the second tier
is every bit as aggressive about making joint ventures. (See chart
below for the extent of joint ventures between media giants.)
We are the world
In some ways, the emerging global commercial media system
is not an entirely negative proposition. It occasionally promotes
anti-racist, anti-sexist or anti-authoritarian messages that can
be welcome in some of the more repressive corners of the world.
But on balance the system has minimal interest in journalism or
public affairs except for that which serves the business and upper-middle
classes, and it privileges just a few lucrative genres that it
can do quite well-like sports, light entertainment and action
movies-over other fare. Even at its best the entire system is
saturated by a hyper-commercialism, a veritable commercial carpet
bombing of every aspect of human life. As the C.E.O. of Westinghouse
put it (Advertising Age, 2/3/97), "We are here to serve advertisers.
That is our raison d'etre."
Some once posited that the rise of the Internet would eliminate
the monopoly power of the global media giants. Such talk has declined
recently as the largest media, telecommunication and computer
firms have done everything within their immense powers to colonize
the Internet, or at least neutralize its threat. The global media
cartel may be evolving into a global communication cartel. But
the entire global media and communication system is still in flux.
While we are probably not too far from crystallization, there
will likely be considerable merger and joint venture activity
in the coming years. Indeed, by the time you read this, there
may already be some shifts in who owns what or whom.
What is tragic is that this entire process of global media
concentration has taken place with little public debate, especially
in the U.S., despite the clear implications for politics and culture.
After World War II, the Allies restricted media concentration
in occupied Germany and Japan because they noted that such concentration
promoted anti-democratic, even fascist, political cultures. It
may be time for the United States and everyone else to take a
dose of that medicine. But for that to happen will require concerted
effort to educate and organize people around media issues. That
is the task before us.
This article is based on The Global Media: The New Missionaries
of Corporate Capitalism (Cassell, 1997), co-authored with Edward
Control and Propaganda