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Commentary, Film History, Movies, Television

Vertical Exploitation: The Six Companies That Control Your Life, Part I

Imagine that you’re 12 years old. You live in New York City with your parents, and you’ve got a pretty good life. You’re a good student and an avid reader – when you were a few years younger, your favorite book was Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are, and now you’re just getting into C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Your favorite movies are the Ice Age and Night at the Museum series, and your parents take you to see every one of them in the theater. Glee is your favorite TV show; you don’t get all of the jokes, but you love the music and listen to the cast’s recordings in your room all the time. And you love video games – you’re always checking out GameSpy.com and IGN.com for the latest tips and tricks.

At least he's not Glenn Beck.

Now, imagine that you’re the 12-year-old’s mother or father. You work your ass off, but you’ve got a pretty great life too. Owing to your line of work – something in the finance industry – you’re a little on the conservative side. You start your morning each day with the Wall Street Journal, and you usually flip on Fox News when you get home. (Bill O’Reilly. What a character!) You obsessively check the Dow Jones Industrial Average to see how your portfolio’s doing. When you have a minute to relax, your favorite show on TV is House, and you’re an enormous football fan – you particularly love the pre-game show with Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy Johnson and the gang. The best movie you’ve seen lately is The Descendants; you also saw Shame, but it was a little too liberal for your tastes – after all, you’ve got Sarah Palin’s autobiography on your nightstand.

These fictitious individuals seem pretty normal, right? Aside from the fact that they’re perhaps a bit higher up the economic ladder than the general population, there’s nothing much to see here. Not until you look a bit closer, at least.

Read over those descriptions again and take a look at all of the various media properties I mentioned: House, Glee, The Chronicles of Narnia, Ice Age, Fox News, Shame, the Dow Jones, Fox TV’s NFL coverage, Sarah Palin’s book, the Wall Street Journal, a couple of web sites… and the list goes on.

Every one of the properties I mentioned is either owned or distributed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

If real people were to live such seemingly “normal” lives, they’d be giving all of their money to the same company.

Think about that for a second. For the first time in history, it’s now possible for a person to spend virtually all of their disposable income on products or services offered by only one multinational corporation – that’s how varied their assets are. And News Corporation isn’t the only example I could have used. By my count, there are 6 corporations that between them control an unreasonable percentage of major North American media properties, including holdings in film, television, radio, the recording industry, newspapers, magazines, video games, websites, and much more.

"And I, for one, welcome our new corporate overlords..."

Consider this article a meet-and-greet with your benevolent corporate overlords. If you spend any money on personal entertainment, there’s a good chance it’s being deposited into the bank accounts of one of these 6 companies. (Check back later for Part II, which will be an exploration of the consequences of media consolidation.) And without further adieu, I present to you in alphabetical order… Big Media:

1) Comcast

Whoops, that's supposed to say "Comcast".

If you live in the United States, there’s a decent chance that you’re a Comcast subscriber for at least one of cable TV, high-speed internet or home phone service. Comcast is the largest cable provider in the U.S. and the fourth largest home telephone provider, but sensing that the TV/cable industry is not long for this world, they have significantly diversified their assets in recent years. Comcast owns 63% of Comcast Spectator, a sports and entertainment company, which owns the following:

  • Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)
  • Philadelphia 76ers (NBA)
  • Several dozen arenas and stadia in North America, including University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona (home of the Arizona Cardinals) and the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (home of the Flyers and the 76ers)

Its most recent and largest acquisition, however, was its purchase of 51% of media giant NBCUniversal. (General Electric owns the other 49%). It’s with this purchase that Comcast achieved something that will become a recurring theme in this article – vertical integration, or simultaneous control over both a particular product and the means of distribution of that product. With NBC, Universal Studios, and a wide variety of other assets, Comcast is here to stay even if the cable TV and internet industry goes kablooey (which seems pretty likely given innovations in wireless technology and cloud computing).

To give you a sense of the breadth and depth of Comcast’s holdings, here’s a categorized run-down of some of NBCUniversal’s most important assets:

  • *Insert chimes here*

    Movie Studios:

    • Universal Studios
    • Focus Features
    • Working Title Films
  • TV Networks:
    • NBC
    • Telemundo
  • TV Station Ownership: 10 NBC affiliates and 16 Telemundo affiliates
  • Cable TV:
    • MSNBC
    • CNBC and its international affiliates
    • NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus)
    • Bravo
    • CurrentTV
    • E!
    • G4
    • The Golf Channel
    • Oxygen
    • Style Network
    • Syfy
    • USA Network
    • The Weather Channel
    • Several local Comcast SportNet Channels
  • TV Production: Universal Television
  • Animation: N/A
  • Radio: N/A
  • Radio Station Ownership: N/A
  • Music: N/A
  • Publishing: N/A
  • Video Games: N/A
  • Online Properties:
    • Television Without Pity
    • Fandango
    • iVillage
  • Other Holdings:
    • Universal Parks & Resorts (including Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Orlando, and several international locations)

On to the next overlord.

2) Disney

Never before has a cartoon mouse been so threatening.

Oh, Disney – the brand that defines our youth has come to also benefit greatly from our adulthood. Like Comcast, Disney has used the capital accrued from its domination of one particular market (in this case, the under-12 demographic) to diversify into all sorts of media industries. While most people know Walt Disney Pictures for making kids movies, you may not know that Disney also owns the Touchstone Pictures brand, which is used to market more adult-oriented pictures. (The two brands are run as the same company, with common studio leadership.) With its acquisition of ABC and ESPN several years ago, Disney now has a particularly strong presence in both over-the-air and cable TV, and its radio, music and theme park divisions continue to make money off of the legions of youngsters that can’t get enough Mickey Mouse and Hannah Montana. While Disney perhaps doesn’t send the same chill down the spines of liberals as News Corp. does, its media dominance is equally impressive. (Or is that equally scary?)

A run-down of Disney’s assets:

  • Movie Studios:
    • Walt Disney Pictures
    • Touchstone Pictures
    • Hollywood Pictures
  • TV Network: ABC
  • TV Station Ownership: 8 ABC affiliate stations, including the affiliates in New York and LA
  • Cable TV:
    • ESPN (and its many sister channels)
    • Disney Channel
    • ABC Family
    • SOAPNet
  • TV Production: ABC Studios
  • Animation:
    • Pixar
    • Walt Disney Animation Studios
  • Radio: Radio Disney
  • Radio Station Ownership: Around 30 Disney Radio stations nationwide
  • Music:
    • Walt Disney Records
    • Hollywood Records
  • Publishing:
    • Hyperion Books
    • Marvel Entertainment (including Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios)
    • ESPN The Magazine
  • Video Games: Disney Interactive Studios
  • Online Properties:
    • Go.com
  • Other Holdings:
    • Walt Disney Parks & Resorts (including Disneyland in Anaheim, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Disney Cruise Line, and several other properties worldwide)
    • Disney Theatrical Productions
    • Disney Stores
    • UTV Software & Communications, a large media and entertainment company in India

3) National Amusements

This one gets a little tricky. National Amusements is a chain of movie theaters that operates about 1000 movie screens in the U.S., U.K., and Latin America. But what’s really important is the guy whose family owns and operates it: Sumner Redstone. Through National Amusements, Redstone and his family hold controlling interest in two massive media companies: CBS Corporation and Viacom.

It's kind of fitting that a massive media conglomerate's logo is an all-seeing eye...

A bit of history here: in 1999, Viacom bought CBS to create a new media empire. This was reversed in 2005 when, for a variety of business reasons, Viacom was split into two separate publicly-traded companies: the aforementioned CBS Corporation and Viacom. (As if this weren’t already tricky, the current CBS Corporation is actually the direct corporate successor of the company formerly known as Viacom; they just changed the name. The new Viacom is technically a new company.)  While these are technically two separate corporations, Sumner Redstone and his family are able to exercise control over both of them through supervoting shares. So the moral of the story is that Sumner Redstone controls all of the stuff you’re about to read about.

(With these last two paragraphs, I’ve apparently discovered a new way to measure organizational complexity: the number of colons it requires to adequately explain everything. This aside only needed one.)

CBS Corporation includes the long-term, ‘slow growth’ industries of the Redstone empire. It is run by Les Moonves, who was the head of CBS for many years and is considered to be the most powerful man in television. He’s married to Julie Chen (CBS news personality and host of The Talk and Big Brother) and has his fingerprints all over CBS’s ultra-conservative line-up of hour-long procedurals and traditional multi-camera comedies.

CBS Corporation:

  • Movie Studio: CBS Films
  • TV Networks: CBS, The CW (50% ownership, with Time Warner)
  • TV Station Ownership: 28 Stations (including 14 CBS affiliates and 8 CW affiliates)
  • Cable TV:
    • Showtime
    • CNET
    • CBS Sports Network
  • TV Production: CBS Television Studios
    • Includes properties owned by one of its predecessors, Paramount Television (like the pre-1982 CBS TV library and the Star Trek franchise)
  • Animation: N/A
  • Radio: CBS Radio (formerly the Infinity Broadcasting Corporation)
  • Radio Station Ownership:
    • Dozens of stations nationwide, including:
      • 7 stations in L.A. (including KCBS-FM)
      • 6 stations in New York (including WCBS and WFAN)
      • Most stations that use the Jack FM brand
  • Music: N/A
  • Publishing:
    • Simon & Schuster
    • Pocket Books
  • Video Games: N/A
  • Online Properties:
    • CNET
    • Last.fm

Now that's a great-looking logo. I include it because I patently refuse to post a picture of Snooki.

Viacom controls the more volatile industries within the Redstone empire, including the movie studios and most of the cable TV channels. Paramount Pictures is of course an industry staple, but Viacom’s penchant for outside-the-box thinking is evident in its MTV networks (yes, you can blame Viacom for Snooki), the unique branding of Spike TV, and its more offbeat holdings like the Bubba Gump chain of restaurants and the Bellator Fighting Championships (a distant second to the UFC in popularity and brand recognition amongst North American Mixed Martial Arts organizations).

Viacom:

  • Movie Studios:
    • Paramount Pictures
    • Paramount Vantage
    • MTV Films
    • Nickelodeon Movies
  • TV Network: N/A
  • TV Station Ownership: KGBS-CA in Austin, TX
  • Cable TV:
    • MTV and its spin-offs (MTV2, etc.)
    • Nickelodeon and its spin-offs (Nick 2/Nick at Nite, etc.)
    • VH1 and its spin-offs
    • BET and its spin-offs
    • CMT
    • CMT Canada
    • TV Land
    • Comedy Central
    • Spike TV
  • TV Production: N/A
  • Animation: N/A
  • Radio: N/A
  • Radio Station Ownership: N/A
  • Music: N/A
  • Publishing: N/A
  • Video Games: N/A
  • Online Properties:
    • Atom Films
    • Shockwave
    • AddictingGames.com
  • Other Holdings:
    • Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (restaurant chain)
    • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise
    • Bellator Fighting Championships (Mixed Martial Arts organization)

4) News Corporation

Anyone else find it weird that GLEE and Fox News are owned by the same company?

And we return to News Corporation: the example used in the opening paragraphs of this article and the kind and gentle organization that we can thank for Fox News and the U.K. phone hacking scandal. Say what you will about News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, but he’s certainly ambitious. News Corporation’s holdings are global and massive, including extensive assets in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. 20th Century Fox and the FOX Network in the United States are the centerpieces of Murdoch’s empire, but as the U.K. phone hacking scandal has brought to light, don’t forget about the massive political influence that News Corp.’s news and journalism holdings have brought to Murdoch.

  • Movie Studios:
    • 20th Century Fox
    • Fox Searchlight
  • TV Network:
    • Fox Broadcasting Company
    • MyNetworkTV
    • Extensive international TV holdings
  • TV Station Ownership:  27 Stations (including 17 Fox affiliates and 10 MyNetworkTV affiliates)
  • Cable TV:
    • Fox News
    • Fox Sports Net
    • Fox Business Channel
    • Fox Movie Channel
    • Fox Soccer Channel
    • Fox College Sports
    • FX
    • Fox Reality Channel
    • National Geographic Channel
    • Speed Channel
    • SportSouth
  • TV Production: 20th Century Fox Television
  • Animation: Blue Sky Studios
  • Radio: N/A
  • Radio Station Ownership: N/A
  • Music: Fox Music
  • Publishing:
    • HarperCollins Books
    • UK Newspapers:
      • The Times
      • The Sun
      • The Sunday Times
      • The Financial News
    • US Newspapers:
      • The New York Post
      • The Wall Street Journal
      • Several minor community papers
    • Dozens of newspapers in Australia
    • Several dozen magazines, mostly in Australia
  • Video Games: N/A
  • Online Properties:
    • Askmen.com
    • GameSpy
    • IGN
  • Other Holdings:
    • Dow Jones & Company and the Dow Jones Indexes
    • Marketwatch
    • Non-controlling interest in British Sky Broadcasting, a major media and telecom company in the UK

Another classic.

5) Sony

If there’s one brand you’re surprised to see on this list, it’s probably this one. Most of us know Sony as the makers of things like TVs and Blu-ray players, but over the past couple of decades they’ve been putting together a formidable North American media empire. How’s this for a start: Columbia Pictures, which has spent the last few years producing some of the most profitable films of all time (including the Spider-Man franchise), and Sony Music Entertainment, which is one of the “big four” U.S. record companies and features such artists as Chris Brown, Carrie Underwood, Foo Fighters, Beyonce, and – oh yeah – Adele. Throw in the PlayStation brand and you’ve really got something.

  • Movie Studios:
    • Columbia Pictures
    • TriStar Pictures
    • Sony Pictures Classics
    • Screen Gems
  • TV Networks: N/A
  • TV Station Ownership: N/A
  • Cable TV: N/A
  • TV Production: Sony Pictures Television
  • Animation: Sony Pictures Animation
  • Radio: N/A
  • Radio Station Ownership: N/A
  • Music:
    • Sony Music Entertainment, including the following labels:
      • Columbia Records
      • Epic Records
      • RCA Records
      • Syco Music (Simon Cowell’s label)
      • Arista Nashville
      • BNA Records
      • RCA Records Nashville
  • Publishing: N/A
  • Video Games:
    • Sony Computer Entertainment (including the PlayStation line of gaming systems and software)
    • Sony Online Entertainment (video game company specializing in online roleplaying games)
  • Online Properties: N/A
  • Other Holdings:
    • Sony Pictures Imageworks (CGI/special effects company)

Which brings us to the last of the Big 6…

Mickey or Bugs -- who would you rather be subjugated by?

6) Time Warner

Time Warner is quite possibly the most well-known example of a media conglomerate, owing to its high-profile acquisition of AOL many years ago. Like its Big Media counterparts, it’s got a little bit of everything: Warner Brothers studios, a whole slew of cable TV channels, CNN’s worldwide journalistic resources, and even DC Comics (the people who bring you Batman and Superman). And let’s not forget about Bugs Bunny.

  • Movie Studios:
    • Warner Bros. Pictures
    • New Line Cinema
    • Castle Rock Entertainment
  • TV Network: The CW (50% ownership, with CBS)
  • TV Station Ownership: WPCH (the original TBS station in Atlanta, which is now separate from the TBS cable channel)
  • Cable TV:
    • HBO
    • Cinemax
    • HBO Films
    • Adult Swim
    • The Cartoon Network
    • truTV
    • TBS
    • TNT
    • Turner Classic Movies
    • CNN and its international affiliates
    • HLN
  • TV Production:
    • Warner Bros. Television
    • Cartoon Network Studios
    • TNT Originals
    • TCM Productions
    • TBS Productions
  • Animation: Warner Bros. Animation (including the Looney Tunes characters)
  • Radio: CNN Radio
  • Radio Station Ownership: N/A
  • Music: N/A
  • Publishing:
    • DC Comics
    • Dozens of magazine, including:
      • Entertainment Weekly
      • Fortune
      • Golf Magazine
      • Health
      • In Style
      • Life
      • Marie Claire
      • People
      • Sports Illustrated
      • Time
  • Video Games: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
  • Online Properties:
    • TheSmokingGun.com

So there you have it – the 6 companies that dominate the North American media landscape. Just look at all of those movie studios, TV channels, and publishing houses – you’d almost have to go out of your way to avoid giving one of these companies your money.

But what does this all mean? Are media consolidation and vertical integration really such terrible things? Check back soon for Part II, where I’ll discuss just that – and throw in some Hollywood history, too, because if there’s one thing we all learn in school, it’s that history often repeats itself.

About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.

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