Media and Internet Concentration in Canada, 1984 – 2010
Last time we spoke, I said that over the next few posts I would be unravelling a mass of data that I’ve been assembling on the telecom-media-Internet (TMI) industries in Canada. The data has just been updated for 2010 with yeoman’s help from Adam Webb and now I’m putting it to use.
Last week I did so in a bid to illustrate the growth of the network media industries over time, paying attention to where this was greatest, which sectors have stagnated, and those that have declined. The purpose of this post is to address the question of whether the telecom-media-Internet (TMI) industries in Canada have grown more concentrated between 1984 and 2010, or less?
Of course, you are no doubt asking, why bother?
Repeating what I said last time, the most important reason to do this is because, as Prof. Philip Savage (2008) argues, “the media ownership debate occurs in a vacuum, lacking evidence to ground arguments or potential policy creation either way” (p. 295). I agree. One aim of my work here and as part of the International Media Concentration Research (IMCR) project is to help fill that gap.
I did a similar post on this topic last year, and now my aim is to annually update the account while broadening and improving the quality of the coverage along the way.
So why is there this void to begin with? I blame the lack of a systematic body of empirical data for the TMI industries mainly on three things:
(1) the issues at stake are highly politicized,
(2) gathering data on these industries is not easy and
(3) the CRTC’s minimalist approach to disclosing information.
Besides just trying to fix things, I think that assembling reams of data and peering deeply into it offers amazing insights into how all of the bits and parts and moving pieces of the TMI industries fit together, evolve, mutate, grow and become more differentiated and complex over time. I can think of few better ways to obtain detailed knowledge of our ‘subjects/objects of analysis’ than by pouring through data covering a span of roughly a dozen TMI sectors over more than a quarter-of-a-century.
Too often ideology and wishful thinking carry the day when it comes to issues of media ownership and concentration. There is no particular school or perspective that has a lock on this either, and when we look out across the writing on the topic, it is useful to look at four different ‘schools of thought’.
Some critics see media concentration as constantly going from bad to worse, robbing us of “democracy’s oxygen” or creating “Canada’s most dangerous media company”, as the subtitle to another book stats (Winter, 1997; Edge, 2007). Yet, such accounts work rather fast and loose with the evidence, in my opinion, and I’m not sure it’s the scholar’s task to revile or revere media companies without first having a really good handle on the issues involved.
A second group tries to tries to hug the middle ground, head-to-the-grindstone measuring how changes in media ownership affect media content. Their conclusion? Not much, and that the evidence is mostly “mixed and inconclusive” — as if “impact on content” is the main issue at stake or the absence of change might not be a significant problem in its own right (Gitlin, 1978)?
A third school group sees concern with media concentration as ridiculous. Millions of web pages, thousands of news sources, social networking sites galore, pro-am journalism, user-created content and a cacophony of blogs at our finger tips, 700 television channels licensed by the CRTC, and 94 newspapers supposedly publishing everyday. Smartphones in every pocket.
How could anyone believe that the media are still concentrated amidst all this choice? MIT media economics professor, Ben Compaine (2005), has a terse one-word retort for anyone who still sees a problem here: Internet.
Many journalists in Canada seem to have an innate affinity with this view, regularly invoking “ferocious competition”, “a crowded marketplace” and the “marketplace of ideas”, as I saw three times in just the last week, in reference to the state of television, online music, and professional journalism in Canada. But devoid of any data, I get the feeling that these are not so much meant to accurately describe the world, but rather to be taken as articles of faith and to assure us that the machinery of capitalism and democracy is in good working order.
Despite an absence of data, journalists are in good company with Compaine, who argues that while the democracy of the marketplace of ideas might be flawed, it’s getting better, not worse. The best exemplar of this work in Canada is probably that of economist and iconoclastic consultant to the commercial media players, Kenneth Goldstein (see MeasuringMedia).
Hard as it might be for some to fathom, however, there is a fourth school of thought that says that digital media and Internet are no more immune to consolidation than any other media in the past. For all those who guffaw at charges of media concentration, it is easy to point, for example, to the fact that only about a third of the 94 daily newspapers said to exist are actually still publishing original content on a daily basis. Of the 700 television channels listed in the CRTC’s books, less than 200 are up and running and more than half of them belong to just four companies — Bell (28), Shaw (52), Rogers (17) and QMI (13). Their share of the market, as we will see, is higher yet.
In The Master Switch, Tim Wu argues that there are strong and the recurring tendencies toward consolidation in the media industries, and that there is no reason to believe that core aspects of the Internet, say search engines (Google), Internet access (ISPs), online music (Apple), social media (Facebook), devices (Apple, Google, Nokia, RIM, Sony Ericsson), are any less susceptible to the pressures of consolidation than their predecessors.
Eli Noam (2009) similarly sees digitization as a double-edged sword: economies of scale are magnified as the costs of information production, transmission, storage and display fall. This furthers concentration within some markets. However, it also reduces barriers to entry, allowing some new competitors to emerge, too.
A two-tiered digital media system is taking shape as a consequence, Noam states, in which many specialist firms revolve around a few “large integrator firms”. This applies as much to “traditional” media conglomerates (e.g. Disney, News Corp., Time Warner) as it does to digital media giants (e.g. Apple, Google, Facebook, RIM, etc.) (pp. 33-39). Technology is important in this equation, but where capital is invested is king.
Andrew Odlyzko of the Digital Technology Centre, University of Minnesota, observes that all of these issues involve a centuries-old “conflict . . . between society’s drives for economic efficiency and for fairness” that “has never been resolved completely”. Policy issues like network neutrality will never go away until basic political choices like these are dealt with.
“Should something like net neutrality prevail, the conflict would likely move to a different level. That level might become search neutrality . . . .”, Odlyzko says (p. 3). Cloud neutrality might be next and so on and so forth.
Does this mean that a massive trust-busting effort on the digital media frontier is in order? Umm, maybe, but not so fast. More importantly, it means that we should pay close attention to assembling evidence and interpreting what it means. It also tells us that the answers to these issues will not turn on data alone, but politics.
Indeed, talk about media concentration is often code for a much bigger discussion of political philosophy and democracy, and it is on such matters that outcomes here will ultimately turn (Baker, 2006; Peters, 2004; McChesney, 2008; Curran & Seaton, 2010). No wonder things are so complicated and hotly contested.
To answer the question at hand, I began by defining the range of media to be studied as follows: wired & wireless telecoms; broadcast tv; pay & subscription tv; cable, satellite & IPTV distributors; newspapers; magazines; radio; Internet access; Search Engines; Social Network Sites; and Smartphone Operating Systems. I then collected data for each of these sectors over a twenty-six period, 1984 – 2010, again with yeoman’s help for the 2010 data from Adam Webb.
Data for each ownership group/firm in each sector was then assembled. I then group each of the sectors into three categories, assess the concentration level in each category, and then scaffold upward from there to a portrait of the network media industries as a whole: (1) network infrastructure; (2) content: (3) online media.
I typically drop wired and wireless telecoms from the whole of what I call the network media industries because the size of these sectors means that they tend to overshadow everything else. As you might imagine, keeping track of twenty-six years of data for 13 different segments, three categories, and one composite picture of the network media as a whole is not easy, and sometimes it all feels a bit like herding cats. Suggestions and constructive criticisms are always welcome.
Lastly, I use two common tools — Concentration Ratios (CR) as well as the Herfindhahl – Hirschman Index (HHI) – to depict levels of competition and concentration over time. The CR method adds the shares of each firm in a market and makes judgements based on widely accepted standards, with four firms (CR4) having more than 50 percent market share and 8 firms (CR8) more than 75 percent considered to be indicators of highly levels of concentration.
The HHI method squares and sums the market share of each firm to arrive at a total. If there are 100 firms each with a 1% market share, markets are highly competitive, while a monopoly prevails when one firm has 100% market share. The following thresholds are commonly used as guides:
HHI < 1000 Un-concentrated
HHI > 1000 but < 1,800 Moderately Concentrated
HHI > 1,800 Highly Concentrated
For those do-it-yourselfers, here’s a handy list of resources that you might find helpful so that you can gather and assemble your own information.
The Historical Record and Renewed Interest in Media Concentration in the 21st Century
Now of course, there’s no analysis without out a wee bit of historical context, as I always like to say. There has always been, even if episodically, keen interest in media ownership and concentration in Canada and the world since the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
In 1910, for example, the Board of Railway Commissioners (BRC) broke up the three-way alliance between the two biggest telegraph companies — Canadian Pacific Telegraph Co. and the Great Northwestern Telegraph Co. (the latter an arm of the New York-based goliath, Western Union) – and the American-based Associated Press news wire service. Why?
The BRC did this because, it argued in the face of much corporate bluster, letting the telegraph companies give away the AP news service for free to the top newspaper in cities across Canada in order to bolster their hold on the lucrative telegraph business would “put out of business every news-gathering agency that dared to enter the field of competition with them” (1910, p. 275).
In a conscious bid to use telecoms regulation to foster competition amongst newspapers, and to free up the flow of news on the wires, the BRC effectively dismantled the alliance. For upstarts such as Winnipeg-based Western Associated Press – which had initiated the case – it was a significant victory (Babe, 1990).
Media concentration issues arose episodically thereafter and came to a head again in the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, when three inquiries were held: (1) the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, The Uncertain Mirror (2 vols.)(Canada, 1970); (2) the Royal Commission on Corporate Concentration; and (3) the Royal Commission on Newspapers (Canada, 1981).
Things lay dormant for more than two decades, but sprung to life after a huge wave of consolidation in the late-1990s and turn-of-the-21st century thrust concern with media concentration back into the spotlight. Three inquiries were held between 2003 and 2007: (1) the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Our Cultural Sovereignty (2003); (2) the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, Final Report on the Canadian News Media (2006);[i] as well as (3) the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission’s Diversity of Voices inquiry in 2008.
Structural Transformation: Two (three?) Waves of Consolidation and the Rise of TMI Conglomerates
The media economy in Canada grew immensely from $19.7 billion in 1984 to $56.1 billion in 2000 and to $68.7 billion in 2010 (‘real dollars’), as I noted last post. Between 1984 and 1996, new players meant more diversity in all sectors, except for newspapers as well as cable and satellite video distribution, where concentration climbed significantly.
Conventional as well as pay and subscription television channels were already expanding. In terms of ownership, incumbents and a few newcomers – e.g. Allarcom and Netstar –cultivated the field, their share of the market growing steadily in tandem with the number of services available, with minor shuffles along the way.
Concentration levels remained very high in wired line telecoms in the 1980s and early 1990s, too. Wireless was developed by two companies, Bell and Rogers. As had been the case in many countries, telecoms competition moved slowly from the ends of the network into services and then network infrastructure, with real competition emerging in the late-1990s before the trend was reversed and concentration levels again began to climb.
In the 1980s and early-1990s, consolidation took place mostly among players in single sectors. Conrad Black’s take-over of the Southam newspaper chain in 1996 symbolized the times. In broadcast television, amalgamation amongst local ownership groups created the large national companies that came to single-handedly own the leading commercial television networks – CTV, Global, TVA, CHUM, TQS – by the end of the 1990s.
While weighty in their own right, these amalgamations did not have a big impact across the media as a whole. There was still significant diversity within sectors and across the TMI sectors. The CBC remained prominent, but public television was being eclipsed by commercial television as the CBC’s share of all resources in the television ‘system’ slid from 46 percent in 1984 to half that amount by 2000 and about 18 percent today.
Gradual change defined the 1980s and early-1990s. Things shifted dramatically by the mid-1990s, however, as two (and maybe three) waves of consolidation swept across the TMI industries. A few highlights will help to illustrate the trend:
Wave 1 – 1994 to 2000: Rogers acquisition of Maclean-Hunter (1994). Peaks from 1998 to 2001: (1) BCE acquires CTV and the Globe & Mail ($2.3b); (2) Quebecor takes over Videotron, TVA and the Sun newspaper chain ($ 7.4b) (1997-2000); (3) Canwest buys Global TV ($800m) and Hollinger newspapers papers, including National Post ($3.2b).
Wave 2 – 2006-2007. Bell Globe Media re-branded CTVglobemedia, as BCE exits media business. CTVglobemedia acquires CHUM assets (Much Music, City TV channels and A-Channel). CRTC requires CTVglobemedia to sell City TV stations – acquired by Rogers (2007). Astral Media’s buys Standard Broadcasting. Quebecor acquires Osprey Media (mid-size newspaper chain)(2006). Canwest, with Goldman Sachs, buys Alliance Atlantis (2007) (Showcase, National Geographic, HGTV, BBC Canada, etc) – and biggest film distributor in Canada.
Wave 3 – 2010? Canwest bankrupt. Newspapers acquired by Post Media Group, TV assets by Shaw. BCE makes a comeback, buys CTV.
The massive influx of capital investment drove consolidation across the telecom, media and Internet industries during these periods is illustrated in the Figure below.
Figure: Mergers and Acquisitions in Media and Telecoms, 1984 – 2010 (Millions$)
We can see a clear trend towards increased investment in mergers and acquisitions beginning in 1994, mounting steadily to unheard of levels by 2000, a fall after the collapse of the TMT bubble, and significant rise again between 2003 and 2007, before falling off sharply after the onset of the Global Financial Crisis (2007ff). The patterns closely parallel those in the US and globally.
Consolidation has yielded a fundamentally new type of media company: the media conglomerate. Extremely popular in the late-1990s everywhere, many media congloms have since collapsed or been dismantled in other countries (AOL Time Warner, AT&T, Vivendi, etc.).
In Canada, they are still all the range, where four such behemoths and a half-dozen other large but more specialized companies part their size, that now make-up the core ‘big 10’ companies in the network media economy: Bell (CTV), Shaw (Global), Rogers (CityTV), QMI (TVA), CBC, Post Media, Cogeco, Astral, Telus and Torstar. A detailed chart of each by ownership, capitalization, revenues, and sectors operated in is available here.
Looking at media concentration from the vantage point of the ‘big ten”, the media have become more concentrated than ever. Their share of all revenues (excluding telecoms services) between 2000 and 2010 hovered steadily around 71-75% — a substantial rise from 63% in 1996, and an increase further still from 56% in 1992. The levels are more than twice as high as those in the U.S., based on Noam’s analysis in Media Ownership and Concentration in America (2009).
Breaking the picture down into the following three categories and applying the CR and HHI tools provides an even better view of long-term trends:
- ‘network infrastructure’ (wired and wireless telecom services, ISPs, cable, satellite and other OVDs);
- ‘content’ (newspapers, tv, magazines, radio)
- ‘online media’ (search, social, operating systems).
At the end, I combine these again in slightly different form to complete the analysis of the network media industries as whole.
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