Tag Archives: CBS

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Media Companies that Expand into Incompetence

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The constant push to diversify through corporate mergers often ruins what is unique about particular enterprises.

Unless a person scours the business pages, they might miss the long-term consolidation of media companies into ever larger and more incompetent giants.  It has been a long time since the leaders of most news, film, recording and broadcast companies knew much about how the content that their businesses was produced. A case in point is CBS.  Once in the middle of the last century the folks who ran the company—Frank Stanton and William Paley—knew a lot about broadcasting and its peculiar demands. Depth of knowledge about your own business mattered. Since then, the company has been tossed between various corporate entities that consider over-the-air broadcasting and news as just slightly more than decorations in a much larger corporate organizational tree. It is now owned by Paramount Global which is owned by National Amusements.  Wikipedia lists 20 reformulations of CBS over the years, recounting how it was folded into business that ranged from Amusement parks to movies and theaters. Along the way, various owners reduced or shed most of its publishing businesses, a major recording company, and its once stellar news division. CBS typifies companies that were once more focused on their core enterprise of broadcasting. Similar companies like ABC television and NBC have had similar fates of merging into de-facto holding companies that are spread horizontally into many different fields. ABC is now part of the ABC entertainment group, a division of the Walt Disney Company. In turn, Disney owns a great deal, including ESPN sports, Century Fox Pictures, and even the long-running Broadway smash, The Lion King. Include licensing deals for these companies, and nearly every aspect of retail sales produces a revenue stream for corporate coffers.

One could argue that size itself is a problem. What CEO can claim to know how many of their divisions work or how content is generated for their outlets? These folks are talented, to be sure, but their talent is mostly in understanding how to finance acquisitions and please investors, not how to talk to the “creatives” who make their content.  Hence the Disney takeover of the innovative Pixar company was full of unpleasant surprises by the new media types at the animation upstart that was used to running their own show.  Among other things, Disney animation was a very different kind of process than what Pixar’s computer-based animators were used to. It took years and the loss of of key people to meld the more creative company into the Disney mold.

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I thought of all of this recently after reading of a decision stopping a planned merger that would have seen Penguin Random House—the county’s biggest publisher—from purchasing Simon & Schuster.  The two giants and their various imprints have competed for years to attract top writers. Their planned consolidation would have meant that scribes would have had even fewer companies to pitch their ideas to. Publishing, in particular, has always been prized for fostering voices representing a wide spectrum of values and ideals. How much would have been lost if new authors could only go to editors housed within one company?  In truth, there are still other independent publishers. But far fewer. My own field is typical: academic publishing has seen a dramatic decline in the number of independent publishers with access to a huge academic market. It is not unusual for an author to sign with one publisher, only to find that the finished book is now on the list of a different company. There may be no harm done. But its also common to discover that the new division has many more college texts on its list that will be competing with the new book. I can’t count the number of company reps who have visited my office pushing new editions to texts, unaware that I was one of their authors.

The recent divorce between A.T.T and Warner Media is another example. Executives agreed that the former company housing both was a mix akin to oil and water. In practice and in human terms, a company with roots in the common carrier business will have little in common with the wild thespians producing movies: a little like putting accountants with the occupants of a clown car on their way to the center ring. It’s no surprise this merger is now considered Exhibit A of what not to do.

Every company needs to diversify and adapt to survive. But we have too many self-styled experts on mergers and acquisitions, most of whom are oblivious to the chaos they can unleash.

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Six National Media Treasures

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Six outlets represent the remaining glories of American mass communication.

In the 1960s and ’70s the nation was filled with a host of powerful and diverse media companies.  Honors to the top home-grown media giants were often deserved, including those that went to CBS, RCA/NBC, MGM, Disney, and Warner Brothers, to name a few.  But the media landscape has dramatically changed. CBS, for example, sold many of their holdings, including CBS Records and CBS Publishing, then downsized their news staff. The company liquidated many of their crown jewels for cash. Others similarly trimmed social and political documentaries, and shifted the focus of news toward “want to know” rather than “need to know” stories.

The companies that remain are often quite big (i.e., Comcast/Universal/NBC).  And many have contributed to what seems like a new golden age of television. But most of the media giants lack the extraordinary public interest commitments that once made their parent companies essential.

The six outlets mentioned here represent some recent or remaining assets in  a very different media world. The list is clearly more suggestive than exhaustive, but each organization is probably irreplaceable.

NPR_News_logoNational Public Radio. Spending time in Britain in the late 70s, I recall thinking how much I would miss BBC Radio 3 and 4 when I finally had to return to the States. BBC 4 especially included a full range of programs that included newscasts, interviews, and quiz shows. The entire network was and is a reminder that radio can still command our full attention. One favorite was Desert Island Disks. With the kind of decorum only the British can muster, celebrity guests talked about the music they would take with them if left stranded on a desert island. It was amazing how many rockers wanted to have Mozart in their backpack.

My sense gloom about returning was short lived because, by that time, a group of far- sighted programmers such as Bill Siemering were stitching together grants and staffs to create the proximate equivalent of BBC 4 in the United States. It would be called National Public Radio. Over time, its mix of news and music programming  saved radio from the format-music purgatory to which most stations had been relegated. More importantly, NPR has re-seeded a once barren public radio landscape, which now flourishes with offerings from local stations as well as networks like American Public Radio.

NPR is enormously popular with listeners, especially in the morning.  And while some of its news coverage is facile, it has given the nation a much more personal form of informational programming than its public television counterparts. PBS’s Newshour can be hopelessly staid and overstuffed, a function of a recurring pattern of hosting official and journalistic sources who talk mostly to each other. NPR is far better at representing the perspectives of a broader spectrum of Americans. And it does it for a fraction  of the cost required to produce an hour of television. For the  good of the republic, we would have to reinvent the network if it disappeared.

library of congressThe Library of Congress.  With this magnificent library its hard to know what to love first: the Thomas Jefferson building at the center of its campus, or the sheer idea of its comprehensive collection. If you’ve missed it, the Jefferson building on Independence Avenue behind the U.S. Capitol is an architectural gem. It’s easy to see why it is often called the most beautiful structure in the country.

And then there’s the library’s many missions. Started from Thomas Jefferson’s book collection, the library became the de-facto repository of the nation’s cultural output.  We rightly cherish digital media for their storage capacities and portability. But there’s something special about a series of public spaces that have preserved the products of the nation’s publishers. Beyond books there are also vast troves of films, millions of photographs, manuscripts and early recordings, plus a searchable database that could occupy almost any enthusiast forever. To get a taste of its internet offerings, visit their main website at http://www.loc.gov/.

tcm logoTurner Classic Movies. Cable offers many ways to view films. But few channels have carried out their mission with greater class than TCM, which is a part of the Time-Warner empire. Turner runs older films as they would have been seen in theaters: with no commercial breaks, no expensive cable packages for access, and a certain respect for film as the nation’s preeminent  cultural form. A constant viewer will see quite a few mediocre releases. But they will also be offered a range of screenings that no film school or library could possibly match. Add in interviews with top directors, DPs, actors and others, and this durable channel is an unmatched and accessible repository of American film. TCM stands out amid the cacophony of commercial television.

pixarPixar. Under John Lasseter this animation studio now owned by Disney has wholly reinvigorated the narrative possibilities and visual language of the family film. Not only are Pixar movies consistently social and progressive, but they have been constructed with unusual inventiveness and wit. It would take a cold heart to resist the charms of Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., WALL-E, and a host of other features. Most have been cast with unusual care, using terrific voice actors including Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, John Ratzenberger, and Billy Crystal, among others. In a form that now usually segregates its audiences into tight demographic units, Pixar holds on to the old-fashioned but valuable idea that some filmed entertainment can still charm nearly everyone.

google searchGoogle Search. If bigness has its costs, of which privacy is one, it also has its virtues.  Any internet search engine is a powerful tool.  Google’s is particularly effective at managing the task of finding needles in haystacks. It’s ease of use makes it possible to forget the old and laborious process of searching individual bibliographic sources. The sheer ability of Google’s servers to search the internet’s network of networks is surely the greatest feat of information management humans have ever devised.

I can vouch that no item is too minor to be overlooked. There’s a gruff book review in a minor journal that follows my name around the web like a badly trained dog on a very short leash. Google never forgets.

new york times logoThe New York Times. Many urban centers are the homes of effective news organizations that still publish daily papers and online versions.  That’s true of Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Newark, Atlanta, New Orleans and a number of other cities. But there are only a handful of organizations that have the necessary staff to cover national and international news. One is the Associated Press. The other is the New York Times.

With about 1300 reporters–far more than other American news outlets–The Times has mostly maintained its status as one of the world’s great news gathering institutions. We know this in part because it is the de-facto agenda-setter for a lot of other print and video news media. Still controlled by the Ochs and Sulzberger families, The Times has been able to resist the pressures of markets that require other news organizations to maximize profits by cutting editorial staffs. To be sure, The Times is not immune to declines in the newspaper reading habit. Advertisers are also less loyal to older media forms. And most quarterly reports to the paper’s (non-voting) stockholders show worrying trends, such as decreased revenue from the sale of display advertising.

What does this indispensable resource give us?  It is better than most outlets in covering trends, national political news, publishing and the media industries, the arts, and the human consequences of the global economy. It’s investigative journalism is also a national asset, especially examining the work (or inactivity) of federal agencies, and the long-term prospects of key policies, such as the Affordable Care Act.

The Times is not perfect. But it is the best American journalism organization we have. The nation would be noticeably poorer without the illumination it provides.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu