Is UK plc losing control of its media?

As in football, an increasing number of leading media businesses are now under foreign ownership. Media Week examines the implications for the future of the UK media industry

Is UK plc losing control of its media?
Is UK plc losing control of its media?

When investors from Abu Dhabi snapped up Premier League football club Manchester City on 1 September, many fans began referring to the team's Eastlands stadium as "Middle Eastlands". A score of top football clubs are now in foreign hands, and the same is true for many of the UK's leading media businesses.

As is inevitable in a mature and competitive market, some media companies have been under overseas ownership for decades. For example, glossy magazine publisher The National Magazine Company was established in the UK as a subsidiary of US giant the Hearst Corporation back in 1910.

However, as commerce has become increasingly global and regulation has been relaxed to make cross-border acquisitions easier, foreign ownership of the UK's premier media businesses has gathered momentum.

In the past 12 months alone, Virgin Radio rebranded as Absolute after its acquisition by the Times of India Group; privately owned German publisher Bauer paid more than £1.1bn to buy Emap's consumer magazine, radio, TV and online businesses; and Global Radio splashed out £375m to take GCap Media into its fold.

Global, although headquartered in London, is controlled through an offshore trust run for the benefit of prominent Irish investors, including the billionaire owner of London City Airport Dermot Desmond and legendary horse-racing tycoons JP McManus and John Magnier.

In addition, Trinity Mirror disposed of its sports division - including prime asset the Racing Post - for £170m to Irish private equity group FL Partners in October last year. And RTL Group, which is registered in Luxembourg but majority-owned by Germany's Bertelsmann, is seen by sector analysts as a likely bidder for BSkyB's shares in ITV, to add to its existing ownership of broadcaster Five.

The trend for foreign investors' acquisition  of UK media companies is supported by a new report on the UK technology, media and telecoms (TMT) sector, published in October by international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

The study found that the TMT sector is attracting the strongest and most widespread levels of incoming mergers and acquisitions investment since the dotcom boom, with £12.6bn committed by foreign acquirers across 132 deals in the first eight months of this year.
Iain Jacob, chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group EMEA, says: "It has been clear for some years that the viability of a mainstream media owner is dependent on its ability to scale properties across markets and media types.

"For this reason, foreign ownership will continue to grow once credit markets loosen. While the UK market looks to be negative or low growth for the next couple of years, the exchange rate will make it an attractive market in which to go hunting."

Jacob adds: "The real question is, how well are the UK-based media owners positioned to scale in the same way, giving them the size to be acquisitive rather than targets? The strength of the BBC and its distorting effect on the UK market creates a real disadvantage to commercial UK media owners in this context."

The latter point, although a fascinating debate in its own right, is best left to another day.
But there are a number of issues raised by foreign direct investment into the UK, such as those concerning organisational culture and market development.

Most UK subsidiaries of foreign media companies appear to have an ethos that is very much in tune with the British character.

However, there are notable exceptions. For example, employees of US-owned outdoor business Titan are encouraged to wear crisp white shirts, are forbidden to drink alcohol during working hours and are expected to wear a branded T-shaped pin.

"It's a strong culture and that binds us together," says Titan's managing director Andy Moug. "Some people do find it a bit fingers-down-the-throat, so it's not for everyone. But because it's very upfront, you know what you are getting into."

National sales director Ged Weston, who worked for Maiden before it was bought by Titan two years ago, is known for ostentatiously kissing his corporate pin in a hammy show of loyalty. But despite these occasional acts of mini-subversion, the Titan culture remains strong - although not so strong that it is incompatible with UK values.

At JCDecaux,  Jeremy Male, managing director for northern and central Europe, says that a decade ago the business came across as typically French - the company was privately owned and "opaque".

However, a flotation in 2001 sparked change, and now the business is more transparent and its international working language is English. The only Gallic traces that remain, according to Male, are attention to detail, flair in design and innovation, and willingness to invest in markets.
Crash Test Media consultant Marcus Rich, who was part of the management team at Emap when it sold its UK consumer business to Bauer, argues that from a "people and operational standpoint" it makes little difference whether a company is British-owned or not.

"Surely it is better to be owned by a passionate, supportive foreign owner than an English owner with no interest in the business?," he says.

Given the credit crunch, Rich predicts M&A activity will be thinner on the ground for the next year or two. However, he expects investors in the oil-rich Middle East to take more of an interest in the UK media scene, as they have with football.

Good prospects
Clarity Capital Partners analyst Ben Tolley  confirms that the UK is seen as a good place to invest for historic, cultural and political reasons.

"The UK is perceived to be business-friendly and stable and, although it is hurting economically right now, as having good prospects," he maintains.

Clarity advised French group Havas on its acquisition of media agency BLM earlier this year, and Tolley predicts that, with ITV expected to suffer a decline in revenue in 2009, the broadcaster may also be vulnerable to an overseas bid.

Thanks to the synergies between content production and broadcast, Tolley believes US studios, whose output anchors large chunks of UK television schedules, will take a long, hard look at UK broadcasters, with cash-rich Middle Eastern investors more likely to plump for production companies and post-production houses.

Clear Channel Outdoor chief executive Barry Sayer agrees that Gulf-based investors will look to expand beyond their local region.

"We have had many discussions with people wanting to partner with us on developing the Gulf region," he says. "But I suspect their ambition will soon move from the Gulf to becoming international players.

"It's a case of who's got the money these days. Capital costs for media owners are increasing so much, whether that's through investment in printing presses or, as in outdoor, bigger structures and digital."

Dennis Publishing chief executive James Tye believes it makes no difference where an owner is located, what matters is understanding the market and being committed to exploiting it.
He says: "I hope anybody investing in the UK sees the market for what it is: vibrant, innovative and digitally led."

This certainly chimes with the approach Times of India is taking with Absolute Radio. Absolute chief executive Donnach O'Driscoll says: "[Times of India] knows what it is to grow and nurture a brand, so we are making significant investment in our programming and marketing plans."

He adds: "An open approach is central to the way the Times of India does business, and it's an ideology that we were delighted to embrace. With their backing, we are an active participant in this radio renaissance through our focus on innovation, commercial opportunity and real music."

That all sounds very encouraging. But not every foreign buyer meets with unqualified success. In August, Canada's Winnipeg-headquartered Canwest sold its three UK FM radio licences, citing limited growth potential in a mature market.

Yet market maturity and economic turbulence aside, for every foreign owner looking to exit the UK market, there are several more eyeing up investment opportunities from the wings.


The National Magazine Company
Turnover in 2007: Undisclosed
Overall owner: Hearst Corporation
Shareholders: Hearst Trust

The National Magazine Company (NatMags) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hearst, established by the colourful William Randolph Hearst in 1910. Key executives are president and chief executive of The Hearst Corporation Frank Bennack in the US, and chief executive Duncan Edwards, managing director Jessica Burley and Hearst Digital Networks managing director Alex Ballantyne in the UK.

The core business is publisher of 14 consumer magazines in the UK, including Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Best. NatMags also has interests in NatMag Rodale, a 50:50 joint venture with Rodale Inc, and Comag, a 65:35 joint magazine distribution venture with Condé Nast.


Turnover in 2007: €2.1bn
Overall owner: JCDecaux Group
Shareholders: Listed on the Euronext Paris stock exchange

JCDecaux is the world's second-largest outdoor advertising specialist, and the market leader in Europe. The firm invented street furniture in 1964, when Jean-Claude Decaux secured a bus shelter contract for the city of Lyon.

It is the only business present in the three principal sectors of the outdoor market - street furniture, billboard and transport advertising - and claims to lead the airport advertising market. JCD is still part-owned by the founding Decaux family, but went public in 2001. Key executives include joint chief executives Jean-Charles and Jean-Francois Decaux and managing director for Northern and Central Europe Jeremy Male.


IPC Media
Turnover in 2007: Not specified
Overall owner: Time Inc, part of Time Warner
Shareholders: Not specified

IPC Media is a leading UK consumer magazine and website publisher, with almost 27 million adults reading IPC magazines. The company has six divisions: Ignite (men and music), Connect (women's weeklies), Southbank (women's lifestyle), TX (TV listings), Inspire (specialist) and the distribution business Marketforce.

IPC produces more than 100 print and online brands, including Nuts, NME and Marie Claire, and last year moved into the purpose-built Blue Fin headquarters.


Titan Outdoor
Turnover in 2007: £110m
Overall owner: Titan Holdings LLC, ultimately owned by US private equity firm Welsh Carson Anderson Stowe
Shareholders: Titan Outdoor Limited/Welsh Carson Anderson Stowe

In May 2006, Titan acquired Maiden Outdoor and so entered the UK market, securing a national presence across the road, rail and retail outdoor sectors. Titan's chairman is Bill Apfelbaum and its chief executive is Don Allman. Outside the UK, Titan Worldwide operates in the United States, Canada, the Republic of Ireland and Portugal.

The UK management team includes chief executive Jon Slatkin, managing director Andy Moug, national sales director Ged Weston and marketing director Steve Cox. Titan has more than 200 employees in the UK and 700 worldwide.


Turnover in 2007: €499m
Overall owner: RTL Group (Luxembourg).The majority shareholder of RTL Group is Bertelsmann AG (Germany), which holds a 90.3% share in RTL
Shareholders: RTL Group (100%)

Five (then Channel 5) was launched as Britain's fifth terrestrial broadcaster on 31 March 1997. In July 2005, the channel became wholly owned by shareholder RTL, Europe's largest broadcaster. More than 30 million UK viewers watch Five each week, tuning in for programmes including the CSI franchise, live UEFA Cup football and Home and Away.

In October 2006, Five launched digital channels Five Life and Five US, This year saw the arrival of Australian soap Neighbours, a revamped Five News and a refreshed Five Life becoming Fiver.


News International
Turnover in 2007: Undisclosed
Overall owner: News Corporation
Shareholders: News Corp is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Australian Securities Exchange

News International is owned by Rupert Murdoch's mighty News Corporation, which has grown from its origins as News Limited in Adelaide, Australia in 1952 to become the world's largest media conglomerate. A history of mergers and acquisitions has given News Corp assets in films, TV, magazines, books, sporting events and websites, including UK businesses BSkyB, News Magazines and Harper Collins.

Key executives include founder and chief executive Rupert Murdoch; his son James Murdoch, chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia, and chief operating officer and president Peter Chernin.


Absolute Radio
Turnover in 2007: £24m
Overall owner: Times of India Group
Shareholders: TIML Golden Square Limited

Absolute Radio is the number one commercial radio station for the under-45s, broadcasting content across more platforms than any other commercial station. The business has digital at its core and prioritises an open approach through its blog, open playlist meetings and commercial partnerships.

The launch of Absolute Radio follows the acquisition of Virgin Radio in June by TIML, part of India's largest media and entertainment company, the 170-year-old Times of India Group.

UK subsidiaries of overseas media owners

United States
AOL (Time Warner)
Bebo (AOL)
BSkyB (News Corporation)
CBS Outdoor (CBS Corporation)
Clear Channel (CC Media Holdings)
Condé Nast (Condé Nast Publications)
Facebook (Facebook Inc)
IPC Media (Time Warner)
Google (Google Inc)
MySpace (News Corporation)
NatMags (Hearst Corporation)
News International (News Corporation)
Nielsen (The Nielsen Company)
Redwood (Omnicom)
Titan (Titan Holdings)
Turner Broadcasting (Time Warner)
Yahoo (Yahoo Inc)

City AM (50%-owned by a Dutch consortium)
Egmont (Egmont Group)
Five (RTL Group)
Hello! (Eduardo Sánchez Junco)
Independent News & Media
JCDecaux (JCDecaux Group)
Orange (Mannesmann)
Posterscope (Aegis Group)
Publicis Blueprint (Publicis Groupe)

Absolute Radio (Times of India Group)

...and those still in UK hands
Associated Newspapers
BBC Worldwide
Channel 4
Dennis Publishing
Financial Times
Global Radio (but backed by Irish investors)
Guardian Media Group
Haymarket Media Group
Trinity Mirror
Northern & Shell
Telegraph Group
*News Corp-owned BSkyB has a 17.9% stake

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