THE U.S. CORPORATE MEDIA OLIGOPOLY


INDUSTRY ANALYSIS (SUMMARY)—TRADITIONAL MEDIA & NEW TECH-MEDIA

In the United States, five corporations, headquartered mostly in New York, control the vast majority of market share in the traditional media industry (television, radio, movies, books, music). While five corporations, headquartered mostly in California, control most market share in the tech media industry (social media, internet search, online distribution).

These are by definition oligopolies; a market structure in which a small number of firms holds a large majority of market share. The oligopoly structure of the traditional media industry came about gradually over the last 40 years—it started in the 1980s, with the trend toward corporate ownership of media, and concentration of media entities via mergers, which continues to this day. Oligopolies by their nature collude, crush competition, dictate supply (demand becomes less relevant), and seek to use their advantage to maximize profit. The following are estimates of the change in market structure over this period.

  • In 1983: 50 companies controlled 90% of the traditional media industry
  • By 2011: 5 corporations controlled 90% of the industry

In understanding this market it is also important to note the legal structure of the suppliers. All major supply-side players in both the traditional media and tech media industries are large corporations which trade publicly as members of the S&P500. Corporations are government-granted legal forms which by law must maximize profits to their shareholders (i.e. shareholder primacy), and are programmed with no other concerns (i.e. stakeholder interests)—thus all concerns other than short-term profit, must logically be subordinated. These entities have limited liability, and no meaningful controls on their behavior. 

The following diagram illustrates the corporate oligopoly structure of both the traditional media (left) and tech media (right) industries.

The "big 5" media conglomerates are 1) 21st Century Fox / News Corp, 2) Walt Disney Co, 3) Comcast Corp, 4) AT&T Inc, and 5) CBS Corp / Viacom Inc.

Note: although News Corp and 21st Century Fox spit into separate corporations in 2013, they can be thought of as one entity since they are both controlled by the Murdoch family.  Similarly, CBS and Viacom split in 2005, but are both subsidiaries of, and controlled by, National Amusements. Verizon is not normally counted as a player in the media oligopoly as they only hold HuffPost, and the somewhat irrelevant Yahoo and AOL. The New York Times is a hugely influential corporation in this industry, but not a conglomerate. The above diagram only shows the most influential brand assets, there are more than could fit. Update 2018: there is a new merger between Disney and Fox, which is not yet reflected in this diagram (will update once the deal is finalized).

WHY CORPORATE MEDIA TENDS TO BEHAVE AS A MONOLITH

I. Oligopolies by their nature collude and offer homogenous product, in order to maximize profit. When there is a small circle of suppliers they pay a lot of attention to each other; calculating the likely responses of the other players (game theory).  

II. Corporations all share a common internal structure; employees serve officers, who serve the board, who exist to maximize shareholder return. Corporate employees have low autonomy, and high loyalty to industry. Ultimately they must act to maximize profit.

III. Costs are lowered, and profits maximized, when the market players work together to supply a homogeneous product (e.g. common narratives, with slight variation).

IV. Geographically concentrated headquarters lead to groupthink. The 14 parent corporations in the diagram are based in New York (7), San Francisco (4), LA (2), Philadelphia (1), and Seattle (1). Viacom has dual HQ.

V. Political correctness controls behavior, and is strongest in precisely the cities where the media corporations are headquartered, which leads to more groupthink.

VI. Media corporations hire from the same journalism schools, and discriminate in favor of left-wing ideology and Democratic Party affiliation, which leads to even more groupthink.

CORPORATE MEDIA'S FUNCTION

I. All corporations are programmed, by law, to maximize profit to shareholders (a concept known as shareholder primacy). This is every corporation's primary function (see essay on corporatism).

II. Profits to individual corporations are not truly maximized, unless they cooperate to maximize the aggregate profits of the corporate family (i.e. the S&P500). These entities all trade under a single ticker (e.g. SPY ETF,  ES futures), which creates a shared interest.

III. Media corporations have ties to government (e.g. a USG-grated legal form, national security rules) and their influence is used for social conditioning—push the establishment ideology (see postmodernism, political correctness, etc), and suppress competing ideologies. 

IV. Media corporations use their influence to shape government—to push corporate-establishment candidates, and defame opposition candidates. And to attack government officials who pursue objectives other than maximization of corporate profits.

V. Media corporations provide services to the stakeholders. These services include news, entertainment, search results, social media platforms, etc. However, this is a secondary function (subordinate to profit maximization itself), and once markets are cornered by an oligopoly or monopoly structure, players are less incentivized to take interest in stakeholder concerns.

DETERIORATING PUBLIC TRUST

Trust in the mass media peaked in 1976 at 72%, and has steadily decreased since the 1980s, reaching an all-time low of 32% in 2016. Over the last 40 years, media trust has shown a strong inverse correlation with corporate ownership, and industry concentration (which is exactly what we would expect, since these legal-entity and market forms actively works against stakeholder/demand-side interests). 

Americans' Trust in Mass Media

% "Great deal" or "Fair amount", Gallup Poll

Media trust differs dramatically by political party affiliation. This makes sense when you consider mass media is run almost entirely out of New York and California, states which are ideologically hard-left. However, it's not just Republicans, but independents too, who report decreasing trust. Only 51% of Democrats, 30% of Independents, and 14% of Republicans trust the media "a fair amount."

Trust in Mass Media, by Party

% "Great deal" or "Fair amount," Gallup Poll

PROFITS, AND CENTRALIZED POWER

Profits of the traditional media oligopoly were $27 billion in 2016, up from $14 billion in 2011. This group is represented by eight tickers, that trade on the NYSE/NASDAQ exchanges (CMCSA, DIS, TWX [now T], FOXA, CBS, VIAB, NWSA, NYT).

Profits of the new tech media oligopoly were $77 billion in 2016, up from $37 billion in 2011 (GOOGL, FB, TWTR, AAPL, AMZN).

Together these two oligopolies generate over $100 billion in annual profit (note these are total corporate profits, and so also include some non-media earnings).

American adults spend 10 hours and 39 minutes per day consuming media. Of this, 4 hours and 31 minutes is spent watching television (chart). This is an average exposure for the U.S. adult population of 75 hours per week, which gives the media industry incredible power to influence thinking, and behavior. This explains why some corporate media arms are allowed to consistently run at a loss—the power to influence the citizenry's thinking and behavior is more important than the profits of an individual media brand. Long-game, social engineering can maximize aggregate S&P500 profits.

THE IMPORTANCE OF REALISTIC TERMINOLOGY

It is important to call things what they are, not what they were, what we wish them to be, or what they pretend to be. The American mass media industry no longer consists of 50 smaller companies competing with each other, and striving for public trust, as it did in the 1970s. Today the market consists of five large corporations which control 90% of traditional media, plus the new tech media corporations. 

There is nothing in corporate law that defines these entities as "news organizations" and incentives them to that goal. Rather the purpose of every corporation is to maximize profits, especially by exploiting externalities (i.e. passing costs off to society). And yet these profit-maximizing corporations still use the terminology of the 1970s (e.g. "free press" and "journalists") as it gives credibility to their operations.

For the consumer of mass media these terms are counterproductive to a reality-based understanding of the iindustry. Terms such as corporate mediacorporate employees, and corporate propaganda dryly and accurately describe the industry without creating unrealistic expectations of it serving public best interest.