The RJR/Gleaner Media Merger: Commentary by Marcia Forbes (Part One)

As I noted in my last blog post, Jamaica’s two oldest and most powerful media houses, RJR and the Gleaner, announced their merger last week – subject to the approval of their stakeholders and the Jamaica Stock Exchange, where both are currently traded. I expressed concern at the prospect of the newly merged entity’s dominance of Jamaica’s media landscape, although I suspected that this was in fact a necessary “evil” – a business decision. The Sunday Gleaner mentioned the word “survival” in its editorial yesterday, and that is likely the name of the game.

Below I am printing Part One of a perspective from respected businesswoman and communications specialist Dr. Marcia Forbes, Executive Chairman of Phase Three Productions. Dr. Forbes herself served as General Manager of Television Jamaica (TVJ) – part of the RJR Group – transitioning it from a Government-owned entity into a successful media house.

Thanks to Marcia for sharing this with me. I hope you will find it helpful, dear readers.

Dr. Marcia Forbes. (Photo: Phase Three Productions)
Dr. Marcia Forbes. (Photo: Phase Three Productions)

#RJRGleaner Media Merger

Here we were on the day before Jamaica’s August 6th celebration of it 53rd Independence Day, learning about the proposed merger of two of Jamaica’s oldest and most highly respected media entities – The 180 year old Gleaner Newspaper and the 65 year old RJR.

Between them, the merged RJR and Gleaner will own an arsenal of electronic media comprised of five (5) F.M. radio stations, a free-to-air TV station and three (3) cable channels – RETV (originally branded as Reggae Entertainment TV), TVJSN (TVJ Sports Network) and JNN (Jamaica News Network). They will also own a print newspaper that boasts several distribution outlets overseas. Then too there are online platforms and services. At one time Go Jamaica, Gleaner’s online portal, was reported to be attracting 55 million hits per month.

Youth Views

Some of the howls were predictable. I didn’t expect them from young people though, seeing that they have largely disconnected from traditional media. This tweet captured the general sentiment of those on Twitter at the time the announcement broke – “2 men now control over 80% of the Jamaican media market #RJRGleaner”.

One youth said she was “terrified” because “it’s harder to spot media biases if the media is (sic) all owned by the same people.” In response to my probe as to why “terrified”, she said, “we (young ppl) value independent sources a lot more so seeing two powerful old heads knock together isn’t good news.” Concerns regarding media ownership are not new and are usually also tied to issues regarding number and variety of media ‘voices’ and threats to democracy if plurality of participation is perceived to be under threat. I will return to the matter of media ‘voices’.

RJR & Gleaner’s Dominant Market Positions

Going by the 2014 All Media Survey (published in 2015), Television Jamaica (TVJ) commands a whopping 72.5 percent (almost three quarters) of the free-to air TV market, with substantial leads on every day of the week as well as in every day-part. Looking at the local/regional cable TV share of viewership (this excludes international cable), the RJR-controlled channels (TVJSN, RETV, JNN) account for approximately 28 percent of that market. Sportsmax, a local/regional cable system recently acquired by Digicel, commands 62 percent.

While the total potential audience of local/regional cable TV is a miniscule 61,000,that for free-to-air TV stands at over one and a half million viewers (1,530,000). And even when one takes into account the 667,000 potential audience for international cable TV, Television Jamaica still packs a powerful punch and pulls advertisers. Although RJR’s radio brands have managed to lose their shine over the years, with Irie FM commanding a greater share of listenership (19.3%), compared to the combined share of 19.1% for all three of RJR’s brands, with ‘combo’ selling to advertisers, the RJR Group is able to offer fantastic deals.

Overall, Sunday to Saturday, the average readership and reach of the Gleaner substantially outstrip the Jamaica Observer. The Sunday Gleaner attracts 77.3% of readers, compared to the Sunday Observer’s 22.7%. Then too, The Star, Gleaner’s Monday to Saturday tabloid, also outstrips the Observer on most days. Gleaner is the dominant player in the print medium.

Based on their market shares, a combined RJR/Gleaner media entity dwarfs all other traditional media entities in the Jamaican landscape and would be able to offer a near unbeatable option for advertisers; At least in the short term. This is one area of concern that no doubt the regulators will want to consider closely. Money drives the mare and smaller player will be hard-pressed to attract ad revenues.

The Issue of Media ‘Voices’ & Democracy

The proposed RJR/Gleaner consolidation also raises real issues pertaining to media voices not only because these two entities stand at the forefront of the Jamaican landscape for traditional media but also based on the number of persons they employ as well as the revenues they pull in. Reported at $3.3 Billion for the Gleaner and $2.3 Billion for RJR, this is in excess of the combined earnings of several smaller media entities. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

Audiences, such as those who voiced concerns via Twitter, are justified in raising the alert to issues of potential threats to democracy by way of media control, with the possible shutting out of some/certain voices. I say media ‘control’ more so than ownership since both RJR and the Gleaner are traded on the stock market in Jamaica. Additionally, RJR, the reported leader in this merger, has a ceiling of about 12 percent on share ownership by any single individual/organization.

Although RJR’s ownership rule may be strictly adhered to, tracking ‘connected parties’ is not always easy. It is conceivable that someone or a group of persons, through share purchase by others on their behalf, could arrive at ownership dominance. Clearly though, once revealed, corrective steps would be instituted. But yes, one can understand concerns re media ownership being consolidated in the hands of a few persons and how this can stifle plurality of positions on national issues such as elections.

More Nuanced Reading of RJR/Gleaner Merger Needed

On the face of it regulators and others may be quickly inclined to baulk at the proposed RJR/Gleaneer merger, however, a more nuanced analysis is essential to place the merger in proper perspective. This must take into consideration global and local trends such as the migration of media to online platforms, growth of online advertising, entry of telecos into cable TV, the mobile, social lifestyles of millennials (now the largest population cohort), and other trends that toll the near-death knell for traditional media such as print newspapers and local free-to-air TV.

Additionally, there is much more to arguments about media ‘voices’ and democracy than obtained during the era when traditional media reigned unchallenged. The All Media Survey reported potential Internet users in Jamaica as 1,676,000. This is the largest potential market of any media and shows an 82 percent growth over the past seven years. It compares to declines by other media, with newspapers showing about 27% falloff in potential market over the past 10 years and radio 25%.

The coming together of RJR and the Gleaner is a smart survival strategy when one examines international and local trends. Regarding the protection of democracy and media ‘voices’, regulators and the Court need to be fully informed and objective in their analysis of this merger. There is no place for knee-jerk reactions. Clearly though, if it goes through, job will be lost. Workers who equip themselves for a more nimble and digitally-driven media entity will win.

These two men will control most of the existing media landscape, when the deal goes through: RJR Group chairman, Lester Spaulding (left) and The Gleaner's Chairman, Oliver Clarke, exchange documents sealing the deal of the merger. (Photo: Gleaner)
These two men will control most of the existing media landscape, when the deal goes through: RJR Group chairman, Lester Spaulding (left) and The Gleaner’s Chairman, Oliver Clarke, exchange documents sealing the deal of the merger. (Photo: Gleaner)

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