MEDIA BRANDS: Comcast's bid to take over Disney shows its desire to be a key player in the media world

For a while, a chart depicting the media ownership landscape hung over my desk. Produced by press watchdog Mediachannel.org and bearing a mock detergent logo with the tagline "Ultraconcentrated Media," its goal is clear: to draw attention to the fact that just a handful of companies own the vast majority of important TV networks, magazines, and publishing houses. In looking over the holdings of the then-AOL Time Warner, Vivendi, The Walt Disney Co., Bertelsmann, Viacom and News Corp., another thing is strikingly obvious. This chart, drawn up just three years ago, is already woefully out of date.

For a while, a chart depicting the media ownership landscape hung over my desk. Produced by press watchdog Mediachannel.org and bearing a mock detergent logo with the tagline "Ultraconcentrated Media," its goal is clear: to draw attention to the fact that just a handful of companies own the vast majority of important TV networks, magazines, and publishing houses. In looking over the holdings of the then-AOL Time Warner, Vivendi, The Walt Disney Co., Bertelsmann, Viacom and News Corp., another thing is strikingly obvious. This chart, drawn up just three years ago, is already woefully out of date.

This is especially evident in the wake of a recent hostile takeover attempt on Disney by a player who in 2001 didn't even warrant a spot on the map. Back then, Comcast was inarguably an important firm in the cable industry, but nothing approaching a media giant. In terms of content, its possessions, which are mostly in television, still don't come anywhere close to the breadth of Time Warner or Viacom. It'd be an understatement to say that CN8, Comcast's 24-hour news channel, can't boast anything like the enormous reach of CNN. In making a bid on Disney, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts seemed to come out of nowhere, if you can say that about the head of a company with a market capitalization of $69 billion. While he had made a name for himself by making shrewd media deals, with his company's takeover last year of AT&T Broadband and, before that, his acquisition of the shopping network QVC, Roberts possessed a much lower profile in the content arena. But these successes - since the AT&T deal, it's the largest cable operator in the country - coupled with the growing sense that one day soon the media world will be dominated by a conglomerate that owns both content and distribution channels, has apparently led Comcast to the conclusion that it's time to make a play for a larger chunk of the media world. Of course, Comcast is far from bringing the Mouse into its house. Disney's board has rejected Roberts' unsolicited bid. There's been talk of defensive acquisitions on Disney's part. And most observers are predicting that the bidding, which could involve any number of powerful media firms with deep pockets, will go much, much higher. But regardless of the fate of Disney, which is facing its own problems in the form of a rift between CEO Michael Eisner and a pair of powerful ex-directors that include Roy Disney, the very public nature of how the bid unfolded serves to strategically position Comcast as a media player. The sight of Disney, an institution that regularly tops lists of the most trusted US firms and remains a symbol of the American imagination, being advised on how to rehabilitate itself by the chief executive who got into his trade by working as a cable installer during a year away from college is truly magic. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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