So Packer is all but gone, and Rupert Murdoch is, despite his hair dye-job, an old man. We are living at the end of the Imperial age in media. The emperors – the personalities that have dominated media ownership – are on the way out.
To paraphrase Monty Python, what did the Emperors ever do for us?
Well, quite a lot actually. They were often horrible and there were certainly too few of them. Nevertheless for whatever mix of motivations – money, kudos and power – they cared about content. The new owners of media care about it too – but only if it draws audiences that are able, in the argot of the times, to be “monetarised”.
Hence with the departure of the Emperor Packer we will in the next few months, I predict, see the death of the Bulletin magazine, which is one of our oldest news titles. Channel Nine’s Sunday program will also likely be axed. They simply don’t pay their way.
For decades Kerry Packer’s instructions to the editors and producers of these quality journalism outlets was “make me proud”. One cannot imagine the new boss, CVC partner Adrian MacKenzie, having any such concerns – unless there is a buck in it.
Meanwhile Channel Seven is now half owned by private equity. Fairfax has for many years been owned by institutional investors. Although the Fairfax family has now returned as dominant shareholders, it remains to be seen how and whether they will assert themselves.
So what are the trends likely to be in the new media companies, dominated by private equity and institutional investors?
The end of the Imperial Age comes at the same as technology is causing audiences to fragment, and also allowing audiences to skip conventional advertising breaks.
The net result will be a further blending of advertising and content. Already the news in the advertising industry is all about “sponsored content” in which shows are commissioned and even devised by advertising companies.
They won’t all be bad shows, of course. Some of them will be good, but the line between commercial message and content will disappear.
In the age of the Emperors and before, the media had two functions – to be a town square in which people can meet and discuss their affairs, and also to be a shopping mall.
With the death of the Emperors, the town square will begin to disappear, and the shopping mall will swamp all.
Or will it?
The other effect of new technology is that barriers to entry in the media business have dropped to almost nothing. One no longer has to be an Emperor to own the means of publication and broadcast.
Like all post colonial eras, there is going to be a fair bit of chaos and confusion ahead. More than ever, we will be thrown on our own resources.
The new story of media in Australia will not be about Emperors, but many small players.
It will be about what the audience wants, and how much it is prepared to pay for it.