Life in a Three-Channel Universe

Broadcast TV and Print Ruled the First Media 100, but Cable Was Wired and Ready

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- When Ad Age released its first 100 Leading Media Companies ranking in 1981, the reigning three broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC -- topped the charts. And nearly half the companies on the list made the lion's share of their revenue from newspapers.

No surprise there. TV watchers back then didn't have much choice; barely a fifth of households had cable in 1981. Newspaper daily circulation, meanwhile, was only slightly off the industry's 1975 peak.

Media 100 - Class of 1981 chart
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Media 100: Class of 1981

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Much of the focus in that first Media 100 report was the idea that the '80s were ushering in an era of unparalleled growth in the media industry, marked by accelerated movement from one type of media business to another.

The cable revolution was very much under way in 1981. Ted Turner's CNN was a year old. Tele-Communications Inc., John Malone's pioneering cable-system company, ranked No. 66.

Malone later sold TCI to AT&T, which then sold its cable business to Comcast Corp. in 2002.

Comcast in 2009 became the nation's largest media company. (Mr. Malone today is chairman of Liberty Media Corp., a media conglomerate that owns the Starz and Encore premium cable channels.)

Comcast's 2009 net media revenue ($32.1 billion) is greater than the combined revenue of the 1981 report's top 100 media companies ($29.5 billion, based on 1980 revenue). (Comcast's 2009 revenue, adjusted for inflation in 1980 dollars, was $12.3 billion.)

The buzz in 1981 was "electronic media" -- cable channels and information delivered over cable wires, plus information services delivered to computers over phone wires. Print media companies scrambled to figure out which emerging technology offered the best chance for revenue, profits and growth. Sound familiar?

From the first report's analysis: "Technology is making it possible for newspapers to deliver on TV screens the information and advertising they traditionally delivered as newsprint. At the same time, technology is affording television the opportunity to provide the in-depth news coverage (witness Cable News Network) traditionally the province of the print media."

Newspapers experimented with ways to expand into new media. CompuServe, an early online service, in 1980 signed deals with The New York Times, The Washington Post and other papers to deliver content to computer screens.

Newspaper publishers stumbled on execution. But they keep trying. Take the iPad, for example. Newspapers today are betting on the Apple tablet, hoping for a new revenue stream.

One newspaper publisher stands out in the 1981 report: Rupert Murdoch, an Australian press baron whose U.S. holdings included the New York Post. News Corp. now ranks No. 5, up from No. 32 back then.

The first Media 100 report described Mr. Murdoch as "controversial." Some things in media don't change.

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