Why Media Scholars Should Write Corporate Histories

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

Several trade publications have received notices that last month was the tenth anniversary of the launch of WB and UPN, the fifth and sixth broadcast TV networks, dubbed by the trades in their argot as “weblets.” My quick check of Lexis-Nexis showed no mention of the anniversary by major newspapers. Why should they mention the date? No compelling news reason. UPN and WB have not amounted to much. Indeed, reading their histories showed that they were not conceived to do much either. But it is precisely this lack of performance that should draw the attention of media historians if only because no one else will write their histories. Certainly corporate historians and trade journals write for an audience who are constantly worried only about the next new thing. They neither ask the right questions nor can afford the perspective of a historian. Despite this I should pause to praise trade journals such as Variety for often having a critical analytical eye particularly when the late A.D. Murphy was still writing for them. But we cannot hope that they should do our work for us, only that they provide the data with which we can ask our questions.

Data has become increasingly hard to come by since the days of dealing with companies that do just one thing are long gone. Indeed the big headline about UPN and WB, that neither network had a profitable year, was ignored or obscured by the various tenth anniversary notices. No profits! This is in complete contrast to the fourth network, Fox, which reached profits within five years of its launch in 1987. Nonetheless it took a phone call to a former weblet topper to confirm the hints I had gathered from the reports that these networks do not earn profits. Indeed he stated that they never will which I will discuss below. Why are such basic facts hard to come by? John Sinclair reported in a previous issue of this journal, that one unintended consequence of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act was to obscure advertising revenue trends. In general, the last two decades have been bad for watching financial trends in TV and film. When the cosmic media mergers of the 1980s occurred, the annual reports became increasingly useless since the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require revenue reports on individual divisions and does not standardize the way corporations break down their divisions into filmed entertainment, broadcast and cable operations, and foreign and domestic revenue sources. The annual reports rarely divide revenue sources into royalties and distribution, which, of course, would help both insiders and outsiders to see what is really going on.

WB is a division of Time-Warner and UPN is controlled (not always owned) by Viacom. So we are left with estimates and rumors for these weblets that are not stand alone companies but are owned by shifting partnerships and conglomerates, none of whom need to break out figures for one division in their annual reports. One can read Electronic Media carefully and note estimates of losses ranging from $93 million for WB in 1999/2000 and $200 million for UPN the next year. But it is suspect to construct a year-to-year chart of estimates and rumors and therefore tracking trends in earnings becomes a matter of opinion, the bane of scholarship. The trades glossed over a failed and unprofitable record by noting the few successes. They also rationalized the lack of profits by noting that the weblets work as launching pads for the successful syndication of shows ranging from the Star Trek spin-offs to Smallville. Other media companies have benefited. For example, The News Corporation very successfully syndicated Buffy, The Vampire Slayer to both weblets and back again to its own cable channel; FX. World Wrestling Federation does well with its Smackdown series on UPN. Success for other companies is not necessarily a bad thing for the networks since they are part of an oligopolistic industry that has many interlocking relationships.

The oligopoly of co-productions, of networks having affiliations with stations that are owned by conglomerates that own other divisions that compete with the networks, and other dizzy co-relationships, is perhaps the greatest challenge to the media scholar. The language of cutthroat competitive capitalism still permeates the entertainment industry. The trades still take it seriously as do the writers of the numerous executive biographies that take space away from us poor academics in the media section of Barnes and Noble. But read carefully, competition rarely is little more than a kind of ego game that motivates executives to keep score. It rarely matters to the bottom line anymore. Time Warner and Viacom are too big to worry whether the weblets make money in their primary business. They did not even create them to make money but to merely protect themselves in the syndication market as the federal government rescinded the Finance and Syndication rules in 1993. These rules were put into effect in 1970 to keep production and distribution separate and to enhance competition. They may not have had the desired effect but their elimination certainly has not improved diversity.

It is perhaps a sign of how little vision the companies had in creating the weblets that they hired the executives trained by Barry Diller in his truly pioneering creation of Fox, the fourth network in 1987. Fox Broadcasting Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of The News Corporation, which also owns the production company, Twentieth Century Fox, pushed the legal bounds on every front, particularly in blurring the line between the network and the syndication business. A compliant federal government accommodated them as they coyly avoided the technical definition of being a network, and as the NewsCorp. CEO Rupert Murdoch became a US citizen to skirt rules on foreign nationals owning American broadcast stations. In turn, it is argued that Fox actually did create new original programming and competed with the big three networks forcing them into a different line of programming. But Fox’s originality was limited to parody and paranoia, and arguably did not extend to creating new genres or new ways of using TV.

Thus it seems purely defensive for corporations to hire Diller protégés to merely do what Diller had already done in a landscape that no longer had room for copycats. Perhaps the weblets are proof that media based solely on advertising as the single revenue stream has reached a limit. But do we know without good numbers? Do we know how to maximize the possibilities of broadcast television? There is no policy pressure for new businesses and new ideas. Diversity through the fake “competition” of late capitalism has proven to be a policy joke. There is little hope for new policies, not only because we have a regressive administration, but also because there is little analysis to support new policies. Certainly the trades and the journalists remain bound to the frames provided by the media conglomerates. It is only the academics who can provide such analyses. While the situation was profoundly different, let us remember that at the same time Fox was being created, Great Britain was creating Channel Four with guidance from academics and media historians. Of course they had the numbers and the understanding of a far more transparent broadcast system.

It is probably at this point that you are asking what about all that good stuff on American cable. Maybe there is some good stuff here and there as there was in the heyday of the big three networks. Still it is not enough to stop reflecting that on the tenth anniversary of UPN and WB, there must be a better way to allocate resources for our media. There must be some way to stop paying for “going through all these things twice.” Let’s begin the analysis.

Sources

Greppi, Michele. (2001, June 18th). “It’s Nervous Time for UPN Execs.” Electronic Media. P.3.

Freeman, Michael. (2000, July 31st). “Mergers Prove it’s a Small World.” Electronic Media. P. 3.

Littleton, Cynthia. (2005, January 11th). “A Tale of Two Networks.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.24-25, 32.

Littleton, Cynthia, and Kimberly Speight. (2005, January 11th). “Supply Line.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.26, 32.

Sinclair, John. (2005, January 21st). “Global Advertising Data SOX-ed Up.” Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. 1.8.

Wallenstein, Andrew. (2005, January 11th). “Creative Outlet.” The Hollywood Reporter. Pp.28, 32. Interview with Dean Valentine, February 8th, 2005.

Links
UPN Homepage
WB Homepage
FOX

Please feel free to comment.

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4 comments

  • As a student of public policy in addition to media studies, there has been latent frustration with the current gap between the two arenas. Refreshingly, I find Fred Wasser’s article as a possible opening of a necessary conversation and action plan. Perhaps, if large media conglomerations are not justifying their public service achievements, and can’t even show a capitalistic success, there will be a demand for further accountability on all fronts. But just as Fred Wasser wants us to start analyzing, let’s start mobilizing concomitantly.

  • The Crazy Conglomerates

    Fred Wasser certainly hits the mark on how the contemporary media industry is a labyrinth of dark and confusing passage ways that would make Daedalus envious. One might even ask if they are just as confusing to the media executives as to the academics desparate to find their way and slay the Minotaur born of corporate greed and political corruption. Which is to suggest that one might best start off in a history of contemporary media by not limiting one’s analysis to the “strategic logic” of media executies as if the intricate relationships of contemporary conglomerates make strategic sense or serve strategic purposes that are immediately obvious. The past fiasco of Time Warner and AOL is one example. Or what was in Sumner Redstone’s “mind” in the Viacom/CBS merger – strategic logic or the 500 million dollars he earned in the deal?

  • what is a corporation, anyway?

    Thanks to Fred Wasser for yet another insightful piece. He’s absolutely right that the specific character and behaviors of corporations need both better analysis and better critiques. It won’t do, IMHO, to simply use the word “corporate” as a curse word — as is too often the case in leftist criticism (corporate greed, corporate control, etc.). What, exactly, is the problem: are they too bureaucratic? Too big? Or is the profit motive itself, whether or not embodied in a corporation, the problem?

    Bateson once said that the problem with the fiction of the corporate individual is not just that corporations are actually groups of individuals, but that a corporation is a conglomeration of only PARTS of individuals: they’re an odd kind of institutional structuring machine, that divides human activities and lives in strange ways. The same could be said of a university, though the institutions of a university — tenure, the peer review process, graduate school — flow relatively straightforwardly from the university’s stated mission. Corporations, especially media corporations, seem to be oddly swimming around in the spaces between cultures of everyday life and the systems of mass manufacture of goods; they grab a lot of money in the process, but I’m not sure that fact really accounts for all of their distinctiveness.

  • Media corporations as machines (and metaphors) for domination

    Fred raises excellent concerns about the lack of specific info regarding corporate profitability. As someone who’s had a difficult time trolling through the last decade or so of the trades in pursuit of similar data, I can certainly sympathize.

    Tom’s point about the “specific character” of corporations is also significant. While we read a fair amount about various egos at work (e.g., Redstone vs. Karmazin, to mention but one), we have to glean a fuller understanding of the corporation from whatever we can, which generally consists of lists of “what they own.”

    I’m all in favor of the “what they own” lists, especially as teaching tools. I’m also very much in favor of contextualizing them historically as much as possible (again, with the fairly limited primary and secondary sources available). Such tactics point to how corporations’ basic function seems to be straightforward domination, whether economic, cultural, or social. That is, they function to control their environment as much as possible. Whether or not the WB or UPN is actually profitable or not is not as important as the fact that they serve to channel resources (financial capital, creative talent, advertising revenue, etc.) into the maw of Time Warner and Viacom (respectively), rather than into (say) Disney or NBC-Universal.

    That said, I agree that it is past time to work at understanding just how “corporations” work, and how “industry workers” conceptualize what they do. First-hand experiences (such as Fred’s) are certainly important sources, but organizational analysis (of which there are many useful varieties) are a likelier route for most of us. Let me recommend the work of Keith Negus (especially his excellent Music Genres and Corporate Cultures) as a model for this kind of research.

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