This roundup of some of the media groups that have been formed in the last couple years is interesting in and of itself. The reasons behind this wave of consolidation and partnership are driven by a desire to survive, hoping the scale achieved by being part of a network gives them some bargaining power over ad rates as publishers try to scoop up their share of what Facebook and Google are leaving behind.
That list doesn’t even include all the podcast networks that are gaining control over that medium, able to score premium placement on Apple Podcasts’ home page and leverage talent to create branded content and sponsored shows for brands. Panoply, Gimlet and others have been not only expanding their productions organically but through the acquisition of independent shows as well, building themselves into powerhouses.
In many respects these groups resemble the blog networks of old. Weblogs, Inc., Gawker Media and others from the mid-2000s were designed to offer ads at scale to take on the big media companies. Some sites from those networks went on to great success, some were shuttered after a corporate acquisition and others were smothered by vengeful tech billionaires whose ideas of privacy seem to be…situational.
“Survival” is also the rationale cited by those behind a number of proposed mergers. CBS+Viacom, Disney+Fox, AT&T+Time Warner. The details differ slightly from one to the other, but they all have the same aspirational goal, that joining forces and commanding more of the media market will allow them to compete against Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (collectively referred to sometimes as FANG). Those companies are category killers, dominating advertising and media industries and leaving legacy players scrambling.
The problem comes from the simple fact that consolidation almost never benefits anyone outside of the consolidated, and even then it’s not guaranteed. Consolidation leads to hegemony and to a further marginalization of smaller independent players. As I said, if you want to launch a successful podcast, your best bet is to make it to the front of Apple’s or Spotify’s storefronts. The odds of doing so are exponentially better if you have a big network with some weight to throw around. If you want to get some readers for your blog, it’s a good bet to try to become part of one of those networks as opposed to going it alone. You’ll only enjoy those advantages, though, as long as you stay in the good graces of the network.
The dangers of media consolidation at a larger scale are even more dangerous. We’re seeing that right now as Sinclair Media launches a propaganda campaign at the same time it seeks clearance to purchase more media outlets that would result in it reaching over 70% of the U.S. local news audience.
There’s a counter-intuitive argument that states the best way for companies to survive would be for a tightening of restrictions on media ownership combined with a trust-busting breakup of the existing gargantuan companies. If you went all U.S. Steel/Ma Bell on Google, Facebook and Amazon and put lower limits on market reach, there would be more room for smaller, scrappier companies to compete on the actual value proposition offered to the audience.
To say that’s unlikely in our current political climate would be an understatement. Right now there’s an active war being waged to silence disagreeable opinions and reporting while those who spread disinformation are being championed as heroes.
It’s not surprising that independent players are seeking safety in numbers. Unfortunately that seems to offer no real protection from either corporate monoliths, petty billionaires or simple market forces as they exist now. That’s too bad since we need more diversity in media, not less.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.