Sunday night crime on national television, the favourite Netflix series on Monday and videos shared on Facebook in between: what content we consume from which provider has become highly differentiated. At the same time, it appears as though globalisation and digitalisation have resulted in an ever more homogeneous range of products dominated by just a few countries – the USA among them. Is there empirical proof for this notion, import statistics, for instance? And: how do media companies design their cross-border operations today in economic and entrepreneurial terms? Under the lead of principal investigator M. Bjørn von Rimsch, a team of researchers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland has tried to answer these questions.
Up-to-date definitions required
Their analyses focused on transnational relationships between market structures and media management. In concrete terms, the team explored what strategies media companies in Europe, the USA and China are developing for their cross-border activities. One of the central challenges the team was confronted with was to establish an up-to-date theoretical basis, i.e. new definitions for the media sphere. The increasing importance and presence of social media creates problems of demarcation, and it is not always clear what a media company is and what it is not. Are Netflix and Facebook to be considered media companies in the same way as news agencies? Where and how do you draw the line? The Austrian team – Matthias Karmasin and Denise Voci, both from the Institute for Media and Communication Sciences at the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt – developed a definition that served them well for the purposes of their research.
It all depends on the content
Their research focuses on the concrete media content, which can be information, entertainment or a mix thereof. According to Voci, one speaks of a media company only if it fulfils the following three points with a view to the content it offers: procurement, aggregation and distribution. If only one of them does not apply, an undertaking does not match the definition of a “media company”. According to this definition, Netflix is a media company, because it creates its own content (procurement), whereas Facebook does not fulfil this criterion. Karmasin considers up-to-date terminology to be not only important for research, but also to have socio-political relevance, especially in the media sector. After all, media generate publicity and therefore have a great impact on a wide range of issues ranging from identity to the quality of democracy. “Media products always have a dual character as an economic and a cultural asset”, Karmasin notes.
The international research project “The management and economics of cross-border media communication” started as a joint project between the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Eichstätt (Germany) and, initially, the University of Zurich (Switzerland). Meanwhile the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz, Germany has also joined the project. The three-year basic research project was financed by the German Research Foundation DFG, the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF. Project website: https://cbmc.info
Exchanges between industrialised nations
The researcher considers the main findings of the project to relate to three areas: “First, we have extensively examined a large number of media markets and were able to quantify import-export relations and roughly classify media products. Secondly, we have found that the strategies for cross-border activities in the media markets vary widely and depend heavily on the products. Thirdly, market structures are not prescribed by outside forces, but develop in interaction with company activities and strategies.” He also says the impression of globalisation or a strong dominance of media products from the USA could not be confirmed purely on the basis of import figures. Strictly speaking, Karmasin specifies, the existing activities represent intensive exchanges between industrialised nations.
No off-the-peg strategy
What strategies do worldwide media managers apply when they engage in cross-border media communication activities? Are there differences or do universal strategies apply? Denise Voci examined the underlying conditions that are of vital importance in this context. She interviewed media managers from 38 media companies in German-speaking countries, Spain, the UK, the Netherlands, the USA and China. The companies covered a large spectrum ranging from news agencies (APA, DPA) and publishing houses (e.g. Axel Springer) to large groups such as Bertelsmann, El Grupo PRISA, the Chinese Internet company Tencent or Warner Media. “First and foremost their activities are geared to the economic situation, some also mentioned technological, geographical or ethical aspects”, says Voci. In other words, the aspects most important to media companies are the purchasing power of consumers and potential partners in the B2B sector, as well as the overall economic situation and advertising market in the host country. Basically, however, there is nothing that does not affect the strategy – especially cultural aspects, as the scholar emphasised.
Cultural factors always resonate in the media sector across the entire cycle, from production and marketing to consumption. It is thus impossible to reduce intercultural exchanges to import and export statistics, as one result of the studies puts forward. Given that the aforementioned aspects of identity and quality of democracy are also involved, Karmasin suggests a “culturally sensitive, regionally specific approach”. At any rate, a universal globalisation strategy at a meta-level does not exist. If at all, such a strategy is only conceivable for individual sub-fields, and it would depend very much on the respective product and the market situation. Currently, the existence of a global media system is therefore questionable.
Matthias Karmasin is an Austrian media and communication scientist and a full professor of Media and Communication Sciences. Since 2013 he has been Director of the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Sciences, which is jointly run by the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Klagenfurt. Denise Voci holds the post of university assistant at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies in Klagenfurt and wrote her dissertation on a sub-aspect of the international research project.