But linger a little, and there's enough to give any media seller the willies. Google, a company that wasn't even on anyone's radar a decade ago, has cut past former giants like a hot knife through butter to land at No. 12. Time Warner, the country's biggest media company every year since 1995 and once more this year, is poised to cede its top spot to Comcast with the pending spinoff of Time Warner Cable.
Sign of the times
So Time Warner steps from its throne to concentrate on creating great content, and Comcast, essentially a distribution company, rises in its place. That's surely a sign of the times. And as Time Warner Cable spins out from its parent in mass media, it is working with Comcast and four other cable providers to build Project Canoe -- the high-profile effort to make addressable and interactive TV ads easier to buy, sell and measure. Microsoft, 31st in this year's media-company ranking but nowhere on the list 10 years ago, just bought Navic Networks, an addressable-ad-technology provider.
Google -- whose leap to 12th from 19th last year was the only big gain in the top 20 -- has just won a deal to sell some commercials on NBC Universal networks. That deal will allow NBC Universal to share in the second-by-second viewer data Google gets from the Dish Network. Dish is No. 9 in our media ranking this year, up from 73rd 10 years ago.
"This is a changing of the guard," said Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo Group and chief innovation officer for Publicis Groupe Media. "If you look back 20, 30 years ago, the major companies would probably be print-based. Then they move to basically be broadcast based. Now we're looking at companies that have basically digital or technology underpinnings."
"Ten or 20 years from now, I think what you will find is half of the existing players will still be around," Mr. Tobaccowala added. "They may be under different ownership. And we may see people like a Cisco and an Amazon."
For the record, neither Cisco nor Amazon has crashed our list -- yet. But the ranks include many companies that weren't always considered media ventures. And there are plenty of brands that didn't exist when cable was the hot new technology.
"If you look back at the advent of the printing press, newspapers, telegraph, radio, TV, cable and then the internet, these are all seminal periods of change," said Patrick Quinn, president-CEO of PQ Media, a research company that's charted plenty of change itself. "Now we've gone beyond launching new platforms based on new technology to actually improving their efficiency, targeting and usability."
The newcomers are slowly but relentlessly taking the place of companies once considered the bedrock of American media. Ten years ago, newspaper owners including the New York Times Co., Gannett and Advance Publications held half of the top 10 slots on our leader board. Now it's down to two: News Corp. and Cox. That's probably a lasting phenomenon too.
"Their position in a listing is the least of their problems," said Lauren Rich Fine, a longtime newspaper analyst for Merrill who now teaches at Kent State.
"What's interesting from a historic perspective is seeing companies that pursued diversification by adding divisions are now the ones spinning them off," Ms. Fine said. "The pendulum is swinging."
Conglomerates are indeed simplifying their stories to investors. Distributing content is easier than ever, so content companies are less determined to own the means of distribution. Companies including E.W. Scripps are splitting their newspaper operations from their broadcasting businesses. Barry Diller has been breaking IAC/InterActiveCorp into pieces.
What's less clear is how far back the pendulum will swing -- and who the buyers will be.
"When we do it in 2018, how many companies will have a significant mobile presence?" asked Leo Kivijarv, VP-research at PQ Media. "Will Verizon be No. 9? Will they buy a TV station in the next 20 years as mobile becomes more important in the U.S.?"
Increasing numbers of international players, particularly from India and China, are likely to climb the ranks here too, according to Mr. Tobaccowala. Bollywood's Reliance Big Entertainment has just agreed, for example, to invest some $550 million in DreamWorks.
"You've already seen the digital players, you've already seen the technology players," Mr. Tobaccowala said. "You're also going to see the global players."
'New paths to big-ness'
Not only does this list reflect the shifts taking place in the industry, it is perhaps itself being rendered irrelevant by them. "You're making the wrong list," said Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?" and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York. "There are new paths to big-ness. And those paths are not necessarily through ownership and corporate control."
Witness the astounding reach of ad-network operators such as Glam Media, Mr. Jarvis said. It reaches millions without owning the content or the distribution. Advertisers can put together ad hoc networks anytime they're will to put in the effort.
"The mass market is dead, replaced by the mass of niches," Mr. Jarvis said. "Advertising people roll their eyes at me and say, 'No, no, no.'" They cite big draws such as "American Idol," he said. "But we all know how inefficient that's been. And what's artificially propping it up has been the advertising industry, because they like one-stop shopping. They're not built to find these highly targeted networks."