What will we do without David Carr, the brilliant media columnist at the New York Times who died last week? At ILSR, we will especially miss his writing on monopoly power in the book and media industries, including his smart pieces on Amazon, Comcast, and other giants. Below we’ve excerpted and linked to a few of his best recent pieces on those subjects.
In Modern Media Realm, Big Mergers Are a Bulwark Against Rivals — July 16, 2014
Comcast’s bold strategy of acquisition kicked off a wave of defensive consolidation, fueled by a combination of fear and abundant capital in the media realm.
I talked to the head of one company that creates television and movies, who expressed a common sentiment. “When Comcast decided to get bigger,” he said, “we all had to ask ourselves, Are we big enough? We all have to think about getting bigger.”
And why not? No one is stopping them.
With big data, a Big Brother government and now big media, size creates its own prerogatives. When Amazon used its market dominance to limit access to Hachette books over a price dispute, regulators yawned. When AT&T and DirecTV propose a tie-up in response to Comcast, the market issues are just another deal point. Cable companies slowed down content from clients (which are also competitors) like Netflix, and it was treated as a business dispute.
For the most part, the current government has passed on regulating potential monopolies, and as citizens, we have become inured to the consequences of bigness.
Amazon Absorbing Price Fight Punches — June 1, 2014
Someone forgot to tell the book business that it was dead. Last Thursday afternoon, I walked over to the Javits Center in Manhattan, where a throng of people had gathered for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual campfire — so many people that I wondered if there was a free whiskey concession…
The immense space was brimming with a surprising amount of optimism: After years of downward spiral, the industry seems to have found some kind of equilibrium.
It has also watched with a mix of giddiness and anxiety as the Hachette Book Group, one of the big Manhattan publishers, has taken on Amazon in a bitter dispute over pricing. Hachette is suffering big losses because Amazon is delaying delivery of Hachette titles while also eliminating discounts. (Its authors are getting clobbered in the process.) Amazon is taking a reputational hit for not putting its customers first, which has long been its guiding philosophy.
Hachette is the first big publisher to enter talks with Amazon since the last round of negotiations, and book people have rejoiced watching the bully get sand — a heap of negative press — kicked in his face.
Amazon, beloved by Wall Street (until recently) and its customers for putting growth and low prices ahead of profits, is getting a bit of an image makeover right now, and the results have not been pretty.
On one level, this is just one corporate giant fighting with another — Hachette is owned by Lagardère of France — over the share of e-book profits. So why the fuss? The answer is that books are different from the thousands of other products Amazon sells.
As the uproar grows, Amazon is learning that while it may own the publishing industry with a 40 percent market share of all new books sold, according to Publishers Weekly, it doesn’t own the debate….
Growling by Comcast May Bring Tighter Leash — Sept. 28, 2014
Comcast has a long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige no matter what kind of criticisms are hurled at it. That public posture is in keeping with the low-key approach favored by Brian L. Roberts, the company’s chief executive, as he seeks to take over the world. It’s worked very well so far.
But in a filing submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last week in defense of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company lashed out uncharacteristically at its critics. And David L. Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, continued the salvo in comments to reporters and in his written remarks.
Watching Comcast’s ballistic response to opponents of its $45 billion takeover bid was a bit like watching a campaign debate go off the rails. The front-runner, ahead by 20 points, is besieged by ankle-biters who suggest he is a lout and a bully. He finally loses it and goes off on his opponents in a fury, generally acting like, well, a bully.
Questions for Comcast as It Looks to Grow — April 6, 2014
It is hard to say how rugged the questions will be when Comcast goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to defend its proposed megamerger with Time Warner Cable.
We do know that Comcast is feeling pretty confident about its chances. In a recent interview with C-Span, David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast and the man who will represent the company, said, “ I have been struck by the absence of rational, knowledgeable voices in this space coming out in opposition or even raising serious questions about the transaction.”
Really? How can the largest cable company in the country bid to buy the second-largest and gain control over 19 of the country’s top 20 markets — corralling a 30 percent market share in cable and a 40 percent share in broadband — and there be no serious questions?
Why Barnes & Noble Is Good for Amazon — July 14, 2013
Having a bookstore in your neighborhood, as opposed to one that is bookmarked on your browser, is an invitation. Not long ago, I was walking by an airport bookstore and thought, “What if this was the only place to buy books?” Similar to Hollywood, only the blockbusters would get shelf space…
Bookstores offer discoverability, not just the latest Dan Brown or Carl Hiaasen book on the front table, but sometimes treasures deep in the stacks, a long tail of midlist authors and specialty books. Even as the book business consolidates, the physical object displayed in an actual place will continue to be an important part of the ecosystem.
Let’s hope it survives.
Telecom’s Big Players Hold Back the Future — May 19, 2013
Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly. If you are looking for the answer to why much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era, her office — or her book — would be a good place to find out.
Navigating a Tightrope With Amazon — April 29, 2012
Mr. Bissinger, who has built a franchise on journalistic excellence and rhetorical intemperance — see his Twitter account — managed to choose his words carefully when talking about how his e-book ended up as a bug on the windshield of Amazon’s relentlessness on pricing.
That may have a little something to do with the fact that he has a great big book, “Father’s Day,” being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in just two weeks. It would be a bad time to stick his finger in the eye of a company that sells more books — including his — than any other company in the world.
“It’s a shame that the e-book was not on sale at Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is a crucial outlet for any author, and when you lose them, it’s terrifying. It’s a killer for ‘After Friday Night Lights’ because it was just gaining momentum and books have a very small window of opportunity.”
Like Wal-Mart, Amazon is big enough to set prices in certain categories. Suppliers are left to scramble to meet those objectives or pass up the opportunity to work with the largest retailers in the world. Amazon’s might when it comes to pricing will only grow as the impact of the Justice Department’s lawsuit begins to emerge. But sometimes the company’s tactical aggression lands hard on the people who supply it.
Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis, April 16, 2012
The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.
That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead…
But pull back a few thousand feet and take a broader look at the interests of consumers. From the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate. It leaned on the Independent Publishers Group in recent months for better terms and when those negotiations didn’t work out, Amazon simply removed the company’s almost 5,000 e-books from its virtual shelves. The Seattle Times just published a series with examples of how Amazon uses its scale not only to keep its prices low, but also to keep its competitors at bay…
After a week of watching the Justice Department and Amazon team up, I’ve learned that low prices come with a big cost. Maybe I’ll order it at my local bookstore instead.
Photo of David Carr by Ian Linkletter.