Trusting the Messenger? The Emergence and Evolution of Media Brands in News and Entertainment



Important advances in transportation and communication technologies since the late 19th century have contributed to a rapid expansion of media industries. New media forms have emerged in the shape of cinema, radio, television and the internet; older forms such as newspapers and book publishing have been transformed by innovations in, for example, desk-top publishing and digital technology. Simultaneously, advances in educational provision and economic productivity have created a more literate and leisured population with increasing demand for news, entertainment and cultural enlightenment. Yet how can consumers in this so-called ‘information age’ trust that the news they receive is accurate, or that the entertainment they pay for in advance will be enjoyable? If media organisations are to earn this trust, they need to establish (and maintain) a positive reputation – typically encapsulated within a brand.
This paper examines some of the challenges that media organisations have faced in creating and sustaining strong brands during the course of the twentieth century. It explores different types of competition that have arisen between rival media brands in different sectors of the media industry, and charts changes and continuities over time.
Within the field of entertainment media, the focus is on the Hollywood film industry. The brand competition explored here is not that between rival studios, but rather between the distributors, producers and individual stars, each of whom contributes to the success of an individual film. During the so-called studio era, vertically integrated film companies exerted control over not just production, distribution and exhibition activities, but also the public image of the leading stars. Even during this period, however, some prominent stars did break away from the studio system and set up production / distribution operations of their own. As the vertically integrated structure of the industry collapsed in the post war decades, so competition intensified between major distributors and star performers as to who should command the greatest share of box office revenues. The evolution of profit-sharing contracts in the film industry provides fascinating evidence of the extent to which leading actors / directors with the strongest star appeal have been able to leverage their ‘brand power’ at the expense of film production or distribution companies.
 The second part of the paper focuses on news media, with particular reference to the BBC. Attention now shifts from vertical competition between different brands associated with the same product, to horizontal rivalry between organisations offering competing services. Such competition has been particularly pronounced when organisations have extended their activities into new media channels. The current competition between rival news websites is a case in point, with press organisations such as News International especially vocal in their criticism of what they see as unfair competition by the BBC. The present dispute, however, has parallels with the objections raised by the press to BBC’s right to broadcast radio news bulletins in the inter-war years. The paper examines the nature of these objections and charts the expansion of the BBC’s news service during the Second World War. It argues that the emergence of BBC news was a key development in the corporation’s history, which did much to establish the reputation (or brand) which has remained at the heart of the organisation’s identity ever since. The outcome of the BBC’s latest dispute with its press rivals is likely to be determined in large part by the extent to which this brand identity remains meaningful and relevant to among the general public.
The Business History Seminar has been made possible by financial support from the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) and the Vereniging Trustfonds Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam.
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Abe de Jong Ben Wubs
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