The Illusion of Choice: NBCUniversal

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Oxfam International, a non-profit organization attempting to fight hunger, constantly scrutinizes and grades major food manufacturers and scores them through their positive contributions outside of their company. In what is called " Behind the Brands " they demonstrate how not only large companies treat their employees but also what services/products they own, and then rate the company. From their research on the food industry, about 10 corporations own more than 200 of the largest brands that consumers purchase on a regular basis. For example: PepsiCo not only owns the soda, it also owns Lay's Chips, Cheetos, Gatorade, Life Cereal, and about 30 other major food brands that you probably consume. 

In the world of media, that consolidation is much smaller, and much more impactful. Only 6 companies control 90% of the major media outlets that reach Americans. While that research is from 2012, since then the industry has actually gotten smaller, with Comcast now owning NBCUniversal completely after buying GE's stake in the company in 2013. 

Consolidation at these levels only goes to demonstrate the idea of the 'Illusion of Choice'; as more and more companies merge, the less options the consumer has. When these consolidations happen, the general public is usually unaware, and over time you have conglomerate holding companies that control a lot more of the market than you think. You might think your money is going to a certain company only to find out it's owned by a larger conglomerate that might not have the best track record. One of the major news companies that best exemplifies this situation is NBC/Universal. 

The History

NBC, or the National Broadcasting Company was a joint venture with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and General Electric ( GE ) that started in November of 1926. Over the past 8 decades it's gone through a few changes of hand as new parent companies passed around ownership and stake in the broadcaster.

The first was in 2004 when NBCUniversal was born through GE, (who by this point had complete ownership of NBC) and Universal Studios which was owned by Vivendi and makers of some of the biggest movies around like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and E.T. The deal would be valued at $13BN  or $16BN in 2016 accounting for inflation. 

The second was from 2009-2013, when Comcast, a notoriously horrible cable company, gained sole ownership of NBCUniversal from GE. Intially investigated by the government for possible monopoly activity, the deal was permitted, and Comcast had 51% stake in NBCU until 2013. At that time, GE gave up sole ownership of both the company and Rockefeller Plaza to Comcast through a process called divesting, it's now called the Comcast Building.

Holding Company Holds What?

Not just a parent company and yet not quite a subsidiary, NBC now has a long list of products and groups attached to its name, all under the ownership of one of the largest cable providers in the country. Check it:

2001: NBC (without the U) acquires Spanish broadcast network Telemundo for $1.98BN

2007: NBCU purchases Sparrowhawk Media Group, renames it NBC Universal Global Networks. Gains ownership of Hallmark Channel and Oxygen Network for $925MN. 

2008: NBCU purchases The Weather Channel from Landmark Communications in a joint acquisition with investment firms Bain Capital and Blackstone Group. 

2009: A&E merges with Lifetime Entertainment. A&E which was already under the purview of NBC now has equal stake in A&E/Lifetime with Walt Disney Co and Hearst (and equal stake in all the channels within it). 

2009-2013: Comcast takes over ownership in NBCU, NBCU loses total control of Hulu as a term of the agreement. Hulu is now a joint-venture with NBCU (30% ownership), 21st Century Fox (30%), Walt Disney Company (30%), and Time Warner (10%). 

2012: NBCUniversal News Group is created with NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC. 

2016: NBCU aquires Dreamworks Pictures (Antz, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda) for $3.8BN. The deal was investigated by the Department of Justice, but approved over a few months. Dreamworks is now a fully-owned subsidiary of Comcast and NBCU.

So this might not look like a lot of content, but these companies can be holding companies within themselves and have a lot of business under their umbrellas. To make it as easy as possible here are all products under the NBCU name, without the confusion of parent companies and holding groups:

-NBC/CNBC/MSNBC and all other NBC channels such as NBC Sports
-Universal Studios
-Focus Features/Gramercy Pictures
-Dreamworks Animation
-Golf Channel
-E! Entertainment
-USA Network
-Esquire Network
-Oxygen Media
-The Weather Channel
-Fandango (yes the movie ticket purchasing service)
-Daily Candy
-Telemundo (and their sports and news segments)
-Hulu (minority stake, are not allowed to run operations)

Bonus Fact: Naturally, they are also partners with Unverisal Studios theme parks located in Hollywood, Orlando, Japan, and Singapore. 

Just keep this in mind the next time you watch T.V., or go to a movie, or online stream some shows, or go to a theme park. You'll probably be investing some amount into NBCUniversal and Comcast. 

What companies do you think we should cover? Let us know in the comments!

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