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Marcia Forbes: That mega media merger (Part 1)

Published:Sunday | August 16, 2015 | 8:59 AM
Marcia Forbes
Ashanie Reid performs on Rising Stars 2015. The local singing contest has been a big winner for TVJ for a decade.
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Here we were on the day before Jamaica's Independence celebration learning about the proposed merger of two of Jamaica's oldest and most highly respected media entities - the 180-year-old Gleaner newspaper and the 65-year-old RJR.

Between them, the merged RJR and Gleaner will own an arsenal of electronic media comprising five FM radio stations, a free-to-air TV station and three cable channels - RETV (originally branded as Reggae Entertainment TV), TVJSN (TVJ Sports Network) and JNN (Jamaica News Network). They will also own a print newspaper that boasts several distribution outlets overseas. Then, too, there are online platforms and services. At one time, Go-Jamaica, Gleaner's online portal, was reported to be attracting 55 million hits per month.

Some of the howls were predictable. I didn't expect them from young people, though, seeing that they have largely disconnected from traditional media. This tweet captured the general sentiment of those on Twitter at the time the announcement broke: "2 men now control over 80% of the Jamaican media market #RJRGleaner."

One youth said she was "terrified" because "it's harder to spot media biases if the media is (sic) all owned by the same people". In response to my probe as to why "terrified", she said, "We (young ppl) value independent sources a lot more, so seeing two powerful old heads knock together isn't good news." Concerns regarding media ownership are not new and are usually also tied to issues regarding number and variety of media 'voices' and threats to democracy if plurality of participation is perceived to be under threat. I will return to the matter of media 'voices'.

Dominant Market Positions

Going by the 2014 All Media Survey (published in 2015), Television Jamaica (TVJ) commands a whopping 72.5 per cent (almost three quarters) of the free-to air TV market, with substantial leads on every day of the week as well as in every day-part. Looking at the local/regional cable TV share of viewership (this excludes international cable), the RJR-controlled channels (TVJSN, RETV, JNN) account for approximately 28 per cent of that market. SportsMax, a local and regional cable system recently acquired by Digicel, commands 62 per cent.

While the total potential audience of local and regional cable TV is a minuscule 61,000, that for free-to-air TV stands at more than one and a half million viewers (1,530,000). And even when one takes into account the 667,000 potential audience for international cable TV, Television Jamaica still packs a powerful punch and pulls advertisers. Although RJR's radio brands have managed to lose their shine over the years, with Irie FM commanding a greater share of listenership (19.3%), compared to the combined share of 19.1% for all three of RJR's brands, with 'combo' selling to advertisers, the RJR Group is able to offer fantastic deals.

Overall, Sunday to Saturday, the average readership and reach of The Gleaner substantially outstrips the Jamaica Observer. The Sunday Gleaner attracts 77.3 per cent of readers, compared to the Sunday Observer's 22.7%. Then, too, THE STAR, The Gleaner Company's Monday to Saturday tabloid, also outstrips the Observer on most days. The Gleaner Company is the dominant player in the print medium.

Based on their market shares, a combined RJR-Gleaner media entity dwarfs all other traditional media entities in the Jamaican landscape and would be able to offer a near unbeatable option for advertisers - at least in the short term. This is one area of concern that regulators will want to consider closely. Money drives the mare, and smaller player will be hard-pressed to attract ad revenues.

Media 'Voices' & Democracy

The proposed RJR-Gleaner consolidation also raises real issues pertaining to media voices, not only because these two entities stand at the forefront of the Jamaican landscape for traditional media but also based on the number of persons they employ, as well as the revenues they pull in. Reported at $3.3 billion for The Gleaner and $2.3 billion for RJR, this is in excess of the combined earnings of several smaller media entities. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

Audiences, such as those who voiced concerns via Twitter, are justified in raising an alert to issues of potential threats to democracy by way of media control, with the possible shutting out of some or certain voices. I say media 'control' more so than ownership since both RJR and The Gleaner are traded on the stock market in Jamaica. Additionally, RJR, the reported leader in this merger, has a ceiling of about 12 per cent on share ownership by any single individual or organisation.

Although RJR's ownership rule may be strictly adhered to, tracking 'connected parties' is not always easy. It is conceivable that someone, or a group of persons, through share purchase by others on their behalf, could arrive at ownership dominance. Clearly though, once revealed, corrective steps would be instituted. But yes, one can understand concerns re media ownership being consolidated in the hands of a few persons and how this can stifle plurality of positions on national issues such as elections.

A more nuanced analysis is, however, essential to place the RJR-Gleaner merger in proper perspective. This must take into consideration global and local trends such as the migration of media to online platforms, growth of online advertising, entry of telecoms into cable TV, the mobile, social lifestyles of millennials (now the largest population cohort), and other trends that toll the near-death knell for traditional media such as print newspapers and local free-to-air TV.

Additionally, there is much more to arguments about media 'voices' and democracy than obtained during the era when traditional media reigned unchallenged. The All Media Survey reported potential Internet users in Jamaica as 1,676,000. This is the largest potential market of any media and shows an 82 per cent growth over the past seven years. This compares to declines by other media, with newspapers showing about 27% fall-off in potential market over the past 10 years and radio, 25 per cent.

The coming together of RJR and The Gleaner is a smart survival strategy when one examines international and local trends. Regarding the protection of democracy and media 'voices', regulators and the court need to be fully informed and objective in their analysis of this merger. There is no place for knee-jerk reactions. Clearly, though, there will be job losses. Workers who equip themselves for a more nimble and digitally driven media entity will win.

- Marcia Forbes, PhD, is executive chairperson of Phase 3 Productions and a former general manager of TVJ. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and marcia.forbes@phase3prod.com.