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The most salient trend in network news ownership is that journalism is an increasingly small part of what the corporations that own the networks do.

Some observers have used corporate annual reports as a proxy, albeit an uncertain one, to gauge the importance of a division to a corporation’s overall identity. By that measure, news is indeed a relatively small part of these entities. The Walt Disney Company’s 95-page annual report contains 22 sentences about news, 14 of them about the network, two about local news, three about broadband, one about wireless and two about radio. General Electric’s annual report says the least. In its 117 pages, the narrative does not mention NBC News even once by name, though there is a reference to “advertising reductions because of coverage of the Iraq war ($0.1 billion).” (Networks can lose advertising revenue during major news events by pre-empting regular programming.)

A more quantitative assessment of value is to break out how much of the revenue of the owners of the Big Three networks comes from broadcasting – that is, all of the revenue they receive from whatever TV stations and TV networks they may own aside from cable. Only part of that revenue, of course, is from news.

Looking at data from Advertising Age’s annual “100 Leading Media Companies,” broadcast revenue as a percentage of the overall revenue of parent companies has either dropped very slightly or held steady since 2002.

Viacom’s broadcast revenue, $7.8 billion for 2003, is 29% of the company’s total revenue of $26.6 billion. Broadcast provides $4.8 billion, or 18%, of Disney’s total revenue of $27.1 billion. Broadcast provides only a small portion, 5%, of GE’s overall revenue: Only 4.6%, or $6.2 billion, of GE’s total $134.2 billion in revenue comes from broadcasting, and just a fraction of that comes from news.1

When cable is added to the mix, the contributions to overall revenue change. While the networks complain about cable competition, some of that competition comes from their own corporate siblings.

Viacom’s television revenue (broadcast and cable combined) of $13.4 billion constitutes a full 50% of the company’s overall revenue, a 1% decrease from 2002. But the additional revenue is derived almost entirely from entertainment. Viacom, which does not own a cable news channel, does own, among others, such popular cable stations as MTV and Nickelodeon, both of which run very modest news operations.2

In 2003, 38% of Disney’s revenue came from television. That was a 3% gain from 2002 and totaled $10.3 billion. But it, too, owns no cable news channel, so nothing is added from cable by news. It’s digital start-up ABC News Now is in its infancy. Disney’s cable portfolio, among other channels, includes ESPN, which does a significant amount of sports journalism, as well as A&E and, of course, the Disney Channel.3

GE’s cable revenues, as with broadcast, are substantially lower than those of either Disney or Viacom. The company, whose cable holdings include two channels offering news (CNBC and MSNBC) earns just 6% of its overall revenue from television. The numbers take into account the acquisition by GE of Vivendi Universal. The $8.2 billion earned in 2003, while an increase from 2002, did not change the percentage of television’s overall contribution to GE’s revenue.4

More recent numbers are available that isolate the revenues of the three broadcast TV networks alone. In 2004, according to Broadcast and Cable, NBC TV by itself had revenues of $5 billion, CBS $4.5 billion and ABC $3.2 billion.5

Television Revenue as Percent of Total Corporate Revenue
Dollars in Billions

2003 Broadcast Revenue 2003 Cable Revenue 2003 TV Revenue (Broadcast + Cable) 2003 Total Revenue 2003 Broadcast Revenue as % of Total 2003 Cable Revenue as % of Total 2003 TV Revenue as % of Total
Viacom $7.8 $5.6 $13.4 $26.6 29% 21% 50%
Disney $4.8 $5.5 $10.3 $27 17% 21% 38%
NBC Universal (GE) $6.2 $.2 $8.2 $134.2 5% 1.0% 6%

Source: Advertising Age, “100 Leading Media Companies”

Broadcast Revenue as Percent of Total Corporate Revenue, 2002 vs. 2003
Dollars in billions

2002 Broadcast Revenue 2003 Broadcast Revenue 2002 Total Revenue 2003 Total Revenue 2002 Broadcast Revenue as% of Total 2003 Broadcast Revenue as% of Total
Viacom $7.5 $7.8 $24.6 $26.6 30% 29%
Disney $4.5 $4.8 $25.3 $27 18% 17%
NBC Universal (GE) $6.8 $6.2 $131.7 $134.2 5% 5%

Source: Advertising Age, “100 Leading Media Companies”

Television Revenue as Percent of Total Corporate Revenue, 2002 vs. 2003
Dollars in billions

2002 TV Revenue (Broadcast + Cable) 2003 TV Revenue (Broadcast + Cable) 2002 Total Revenue 2003 Total Revenue 2002 TV Revenue as% of Total 2003 TV Revenue as% of Total
Viacom $12.5 $13.4 $24.6 $26.6 51% 50%
Disney $8.9 $10.3 $25.3 $27 35% 38%
NBC Universal (GE) $7.3 $8.2 $131.7 $134.2 6% 6%

Source: Advertising Age, “100 Leading Media Companies”

NBC got much bigger in 2004 with its $14 billion acquisition of the movie studio and entertainment assets of Vivendi Universal Entertainment, the ailing French entertainment giant. The result is a company consisting of TV networks, studios, cable networks, theme parks, owned-and-operated local stations and a network news division. The corporation’s goal was to fashion an operating division better protected from the volatility of the TV distribution business (which relies on advertising and audience ratings) by acquiring control of TV production, too (a large studio and its entertainment library of 5,000 films and 40,000 hours of TV programming).

As chief executive Bob Wright explained, “A lot of the savings comes from marketing and promotion, and cross-promoting various platforms…”6 such as showcasing NBC television programs in company theme parks.

NBC Entertainment’s chief, Jeff Zucker, was reported by The New York Times to have acknowledged that NBC had been criticized for using time on the network’s news programs to promote entertainment programming like the finale of “Friends.”7 But he went on, the paper said, to explain, “Clearly we’re not going to have Tom Brokaw do the Nightly News from Universal Riverwalk, but we might have “Access Hollywood” do a show from there.”8 But, in fact, it was as part of the Today show’s coverage of the 2005 Golden Globe awards that the weathercaster Al Roker showed up on the Riverwalk demonstrating Fear Factor stunts.

With the Brokaw-Williams handoff now completed, NBC executives appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about changes to the Nightly News. Williams, in public appearances and interviews, appears anxious to position himself as a protector of traditional news values and presentation, at the same time acknowledging the changing media landscape: he seems as likely to make these appearances in an Internet chat room or on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” as before a conference of journalists or academics.

The Walt Disney company had a rocky year. There was continued pressure from dissident shareholders. There was the spectacle of chief executive Michael Eisner on the stand during a lengthy trial concerning the costly dismissal of Michael Ovitz. There was the prospect of a major new exposé about the company by the journalist James B Stewart.

As The Financial Times put it in April, “The network’s weakness was highlighted at Disney’s annual meeting in 2004, when 43 per cent of shareholders withheld their support from Michael Eisner, chief executive. Eisner will retire in 2006.”9

During that annual meeting, network officials highlighted the strong performance of ABC’s news division, as well as sports and daytime programming. They called the continuing problems in prime time “our biggest challenge and priority.”10

By fall, ABC appeared to be beginning to meet some of that challenge with the success of such shows as “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”


As with Disney and NBC Universal, CBS’s parent company, Viacom, is now a media company rather than principally a broadcaster. It owns the Paramount movie studios and TV syndication business; the CBS and UPN networks; 20 CBS-affiliates, 18 UPN local TV stations and an independent; MTV, Nickelodeon, Black Entertainment Television, VH1, Comedy Central, and the Movie Channel; more than 185 Infinity Broadcasting radio stations; Viacom Outdoor Advertising; Paramount theme parks; movie theaters, and Simon & Schuster, the publishing house. It also owns CBS News.

In 2004, the network’s entertainment division prospered. Not only did it re-capture the ratings crown from NBC but, in doing so, it attracted more of the younger viewers most prized by advertisers. CBS News was also profitable despite the fact that only two of its programs – the Sunday edition of 60 Minutes and Charles Osgood’s Sunday Morning – were ratings leaders. The last-place standing of the Evening News worsened. Morning news numbers increased steadily for the first time in years, but were still in third place. The cloning of 60 Minutes to a second night appeared to be working until the disaster of its Texas Air National Guard segment. The division’s other prime-time magazine show, 48 Hours, held its own. Face the Nation was second among the Sunday morning talk shows while Sunday Morning remained a favorite of critics and audiences alike.

In a November 25, 2004 article examining the network’s improving health, the New York Times media writers Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg wrote that “CBS is doing so well right now with its entertainment programming that the developments in its news division – led by Dan Rather’s sudden announcement that he will step down sooner than expected from the anchor position after a 24-year run – are being taken entirely in stride.”11 The writers quoted CBS’s chairman, Leslie Moonves, as saying, “Our news division is not hurting us.”12

“That may not represent a ringing endorsement,” the Times writers observed, “but it also does not signal the kind of management displeasure that in the past led to major layoffs, big budget cuts or other batterings of CBS News.”13

“The network,” Moonves was quoted as saying, “has never been healthier.”14

While Moonves has been consistent in expressing his support for the news division, he also signaled that change was in the air. “There’s no question that CBS News is at a transition point,” Moonves said, according to the Times.15 “There has to be a re-examination of what network news will be in the future.”16

In 2005, for CBS News the path to that future will become clearer.

To the degree that history is a guide, the Evening News could change dramatically, or continue to erode. Moonves has shown that he’s not afraid to make bold moves and to spend money. He pumped money for talent and equipment into the owned-and-operated TV stations and Infinity radio. Viacom has also spent heavily on the Paramount Pictures division. As Broadcasting and Cable magazine observed, when Moonves “took the reins of the then-moribund CBS entertainment division several years ago, he opened the checkbook and signed such megastars as Bill Cosby, Steven Bochco and Bette Midler. The resulting shows didn’t produce any hits, but Moonves had sent a message to the industry.”17 Moonves’s history of spending on entertainment, though, has to be balanced with the history of cost-cutting at CBS News under the division’s president, Andrew Heyward.

Whatever they decide to do, a convergence of events has served to clear many obstacles. With the Evening News now in third place (to the point of nearly being overtaken by cable news programs) and its anchor leaving under a cloud, there’s a perception that any change will probably be an improvement. With questions raised about the credibility of news division management, Moonves’s involvement in news programming is likely to be perceived as having been thrust on him rather than meddling. And with the entertainment division riding high, the network has a stronger position from which to negotiate with affiliates.


1. Advertising Age, 100 Leading Media Companies chart

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. John M. Higgins, “Still Strutting After All These Years,” Broadcasting and Cable, December 13, 2004.

6. Tim Burt, “A New Media Model?,” The Financial Times, November 30, 2004.

7. Bill Carter, “Deal Complete, NBC Is Planning to Cross-Market,” The New York Times, May 13, 2004.

8. Ibid.

9. Tim Burt and Holly Yeager, “Disney ponders changes at ABC network,” The Financial Times, April 7, 2004

10. Ibid.

11. Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg, “Improved Numbers Shelter CBS From the Fallout,” The New York Times, November 25, 2004

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Bill Carter, “Courage, CBS News,” The New York Times, November 24, 2004

16. Ibid.

17. Broadcasting and Cable, Dec. 20, 2004