Media Faces An Unsentimental Future

Media critics have made careers proclaiming how dangerous media moguls are for Australian democracy. These critics now face an even more serious problem – no media moguls.

If PBL Media – which private equity now controls- is anything to go by, we may see nameless, faceless, investors replace these personalities.

Private equity firms may be nameless and faceless, but they are ruthless. CVC Capital Partners has already torn out the symbolic heart of the PBL empire, Alan Jones. The relationship between Jones and the late Kerry Packer was not atypical – the journalist under the mogul’s patronage.

Press critic A. J. Liebling wrote that few journalists under William Randolph Hearst’s tutelage would be employable elsewhere.

The Bulletin has long been made viable by a tacit acceptance of its unprofitability and its prestige as Australia’s oldest magazine. But sentimentality, as Jones and his audience have learned, is not a defining characteristic of private equity firms. CVC will be looking closely atThe Bulletin.

Private equity groups act when they see a company with good but underutilised assets. They assume a big risk. To make this risk pay off, private equity needs to cut fat and make money. Typically, after a few years they exit, selling a more efficient company for an enormous profit.

If this is CVC’s game plan, it picked a great time to get into the media industry. CVC has given itself a five to seven-year window. But by then, PBL Media will not just have to be a streamlined organisation, it will have to be radically different, if it is to keep up with the radical changes in the form and content that media consumers demand.

It took only 18 months for YouTube to go from a garage to a $US1.65 billion ($A1.96 billion) Google acquisition, during which the user-uploaded video website had firmly implanted itself in media consumption habits around the world.

The search giant quickly moved on to an even bigger acquisition this year, buying advertising outfit DoubleClick for $US3.1 billion.

The business of the media is to connect eyeballs with advertising. YouTube and DoubleClick present new competitive pressures on companies that depend on both. Given the pace of online innovation, how these companies will affect the market for media content is unknown.

Corporate responses to these changes have been mixed. In the US, the media empires have already begun dramatically overhauling their structure and, in many cases, spinning off subsidiaries.

It is far easier to point out failed attempts to modernise businesses than successes. The merger between America Online and TimeWarner, which was greeted by the US commentariat with fear and awe, is now an embarrassing failure.

In part, the struggle with modernisation is due to the dramatic internal and philosophical changes required. For instance, Google’s project to index all the information in the world forces media companies to rethink rapidly their relationship with their own content and the value received from it. The chief executive of Macmillan book publishing this month demonstrated his confusion of the issues underlying new media by swiping two laptops from the Google stall at a publisher’s expo.

Google Book Search has been indexing his company’s books under the US “fair use” copyright exception. But rather than giving Google “a taste of its own medicine”, the incident was a cringe-inducing display of the chasm between “new” media and the old. The CEO was devoted to the traditional business model on which his company was founded decades before. Hopefully, as we move towards private equity, similar attitudes in Australian companies will be jettisoned. The regulatory framework that has controlled the broadcasting sector for the past 50 years, for instance, has been a complex web of protectionism, restriction and government favours.

Relationships between press barons and governments have dominated Australian public policy. But private equity groups have few political aspirations – their only aim is to make money.

Politicians who have been used to trading favours with media moguls may have to adjust to a press less interested in politicking and more interested in marketing. CVC hopes to make a big profit out of PBL Media. To do so, PBL Media will not only have to be lean and efficient, but comfortable competing with all-new competitors in an all-new space.

A. J. Liebling once wrote: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.” When private equity owns media, it hopefully can do both.