A graphic criticizing media consolidation in the U.S. has continued to linger online in spite of not only a changing corporate landscape, but its own inaccuracies.
The graphic, and its myriad spinoff memes, is based around the claim that just six corporations — CBS, Comcast, Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, and Viacom — own 90 percent of American “media.” One popular iteration was posted in Business Insider in June 2012 with seemingly no effort to corrorobate its origins or sourcing:
Even as it promoted the meme, the website added its own disclaimer:
This infographic is from last year and is missing some key transactions. GE [General Electric] does not own NBC (or Comcast or any media) anymore. So that 6th company is now Comcast. And Time Warner doesn’t own AOL, so Huffington Post isn’t affiliated with them.
Variations on the graphic continue to circulate online, seemingly in perpetuity:
But at least one such meme takes the claim in an even more extreme direction, rewording it to state, “There are 1,500 newspapers, 1,100 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 15,000 TV stations, 24,000 publishers owned by only 6 corporations”:
Studies published after the graphic and its variations spread show that while several of the six companies named in the original claim still do hold a tight grip on parts of U.S. television broadcast media, the industries named in other versions have been facing consolidation from other firms.
For instance, those companies are represented in a study by the advocacy group Free Press showing concentration of broadcast ownership:
According to the study’s section covering “Pay TV Channels,” the six companies that owned or had a stake in the most networks were:
- 21st Century Fox – 36
- Viacom – 26
- Comcast – 23
- Disney – 21
- Discovery Communications – 20
- The Hearst Corporation – 17
Combined, these six corporations owned or had a stake in 143 of 184 networks — around 77 percent. However, only Disney and Hearst held interest in radio or newspaper companies. The study showed that two separate corporations — iHeartMedia and New Media Investment Group, respectively — had controlling interest in more companies.
At the time the study was published, iHeartMedia (formerly known as Clear Channel) owned and/or operated 856 radio stations in 160 markets; New Media Investment, for its part, owned 432 newspapers, including 125 that published daily.
However, in August 2019, New Media tightened its grip on the newspaper industry even further after acquiring Gannett, the company that owned not only USA Today but just over 250 other newspapers. The merger between the two companies was completed in November 2019.
Two other companies, Nexstar Media Group and Sinclair Television Group, dominate U.S. non-cable broadcasting; according to the Free Press study, they own a combined 334 stations between them. Sinclair — which openly presented itself as a right-wing broadcaster following Donald Trump’s election to the United States presidency — attempted to acquire Tribune Broadcasting in 2017, but was instead hit with a $48 million fine in May 2020 by the Federal Communications Commission.
The accelerated pace of media consolidation in the U.S. is commonly attributed to two key events: the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine — which required FCC-licensed outlets to not only devote time to “controversial issues of public importance” but allow for multiple viewpoints to be addressed — in August 2011; and the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lifted regulations on media consolidation and enabled corporations to own up to four stations in a single market, paving the way for further cross-ownership.
Update 4/7/2022, 11:05 p.m.: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag