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New insight into the near-monopoly Penske Media which dominates the entertainment trades.͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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September 3, 2023
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Media

Media
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’re prepared to denounce our leaders’ silence on the crisis at Burning Man.

I always try to write about labor on Labor Day, and those are almost always my least-read columns. Whether they’re stories about the rising generation of media unions, or about abuse in the NewsGuild, labor is one of those important subjects that struggles to find readers.

And yet this is a moment when labor, and unions, seem to have more currency than at any time in my career. The labor market is tight, and a recent Gallup survey found record high approval for labor unions, even as a record low share of people live in a union household. The new labor-friendly outlet More Perfect Union is thriving. In media, the writers and actors have shut down Hollywood, fighting for more money, to protect new economic arrangements like residuals, and keeping a wary eye on AI. Gallup found them dominating public opinion, to the degree the studios are even trying to win hearts and minds.

The shifting nature of work is changing careers and business strategies. The power of talent, influencers, personal brands, whatever you want to call them, are reshaping everything from news companies (like this one) to the advertising industry. The main early consequence of AI in media is, as Claire Atkinson put it recently, to turn “entry level media jobs into dust.”

AI, however, can’t get scoops yet. In today’s newsletter, Max has new insight into the near-monopoly Penske Media, which dominates the entertainment trades. And we’ve got a scoop on the succession plans for the most powerful job at Fox that isn’t held by a Murdoch family member. (Scoop count: 3)

Semafor will be all over the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York later this month, in person and in our energy and climate newsletter Net Zero by Tim McDonnell, which you can subscribe to here: Sign up here.

Assignment Desk
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Will Charter Spectrum’s Disney blackout resolve with a new model in the troubled relationship between media companies and cable providers? Or is it just the first shot in a long, many-sided war that will produce years of misery for sports fans?

Four years after the Wall Street Journal broke the story, the publication has a juicy follow-up piece on the unusually cozy relationship between Stephanie Ruhle and former Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. Is there another shoe to drop?

Can the handful of incredibly brave independent journalists in Russia remain after the state labeled Nobelist Dmitry Muratov a “foreign agent”?

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Max Tani

Jay Penske’s Hollywood Media Empire faces a moment of truth

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter

THE SCOOP

It’s a hard detail to leave out of a profile of Hollywood’s dominant publishing figure: In 2012, Jay Penske was arrested after allegedly peeing on a woman’s shoes in the parking lot of the Nantucket Yacht Club.

But Penske, the billionaire auto scion who has bought up The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Deadline, Indiewire, and others, preferred the detail not appear in the April cover profile in LA Magazine, which he does not own.

As the piece was preparing to publish, there were a flurry of calls between the entertainment mogul and his spokesperson, and the magazine’s editor, Maer Roshan. Roshan removed the detail, and the cover, “Citizen Jay,” was a largely complimentary list of Penske’s recent acquisitions and achievements. “From print to late night, the media is in dire crisis. Does Jay Penske have the cure?” Roshan asked in his editor’s note.

It was fortuitous timing for both parties. Roshan had been pushed out of LA Mag by the publication’s new owners. And Penske had been displeased with the direction of THR, telling people that there had been editorial slippage at the iconic magazine. The top editor, Nekesa Mumbi Moody, a former entertainment editor at the Associated Press, had been hired by the magazine’s previous ownership after the leadership clashed with the hard-charging former EIC Matt Belloni. While Moody was well-liked personally by much of the editorial staff, she was a New York transplant who had previously primarily focused on music. Penske wanted an editor with the Hollywood presence of some of the magazine’s former leaders. A source close to the company pushed back on this assessment, noting that Moody was involved in the hiring process, and interviewed Roshan for the position.

Two people familiar with the offer told Semafor that last year, the media mogul attempted to woo back Belloni to serve as THR’s CEO in a role that would’ve overseen both the editorial and business sides of the publication. Belloni declined, but after Roshan was pushed out of LA Mag, Penske decided to offer him a similar role as co-EIC.

MAX’S VIEW

The decision by Penske to layer the head of the most prestigious publication in his media empire is a reflection of both the power and the vulnerabilities of Penske’s Hollywood news media empire.

With its acquisition of the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard in 2020, Penske united nearly all of the Hollywood trade publications under one roof and became the biggest player in entertainment industry news media — a near monopolist in the lucrative business of “For Your Consideration” awards advertising. While the Hollywood trades have dimmed in influence with much of the rest of print media, they remain the go-to sources for business coverage of America’s most glamorous industry. It doesn’t matter that much whether the top editor of THR is Roshan, Moody, or both. Most of the editorial competition for Hollywood trade news are the other Penske Media Corp publications located on nearby floors of Penske’s Hollywood offices.

The arms race and concomitant awards competition were a boon to Penske. Federal regulators were worried enough about PMC’s domination in this space that after the THR acquisition, they looked into whether Penske’s Hollywood media empire was anti-competitive.

But the end of the streaming boom has hit PMC hard. Two sources told Semafor that Penske has hired an outside agency to assess why web traffic has fallen dramatically across several publications, though another source familiar said that the company regularly employed SEO consultants to assess traffic. One person with knowledge told Semafor that THR missed its first quarter revenue goals by at least 20%. The misses have forced cost-cutting measures: THR decided not to do its “Most Powerful People in Media” event this year, a glitzy who’s who of news media held every year at the Pool. The Wrap, the independent trade rival of PMC, reported earlier this year that PMC missed its revenue targets, forcing layoffs and a hiring freeze across several of the publications.

The protracted writers’ and actors’ strikes could further damage the companies from the business and editorial sides. The Hollywood trades rely on a steady stream of exclusive promotions for shows and movies, some of which has dried up as production has ground to a halt and as writers and actors have stopped promoting their work.

Further complicating the picture, the small-world power dynamic runs both ways in the cozy study business. Three people familiar with the matter told Semafor that Amazon pulled a million-dollar advertising buy from THR after Kim Masters reported on internal tensions and issues within the tech company’s streaming studio.

The company is hoping to put a positive spin on Roshan’s arrival. In a hastily announced video meeting late Wednesday afternoon, Moody told staff this was a long-planned, positive move. But some employees felt that it was bizarre for Moody to be announcing her own layering without her new partner even on the call.

Read the whole story, including Penske’s comment to us, here.

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One Good Text

Rich Greenfield is a leading analysis of the media business and the co-founder of LightShed.

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Intel

TV

Business Model: Newsmax continued to pound Vivek Ramaswamy, after Semafor reported that he was accusing them of pressuring him to buy ads for positive coverage. In certainly unrelated news, Ramaswamy’s SuperPAC is now buying ads on Newsmax, per a clip of a recent ad from the Ramaswamy-aligned American Exceptionalism PAC shared with Semafor.

Law of the Jungle: Fox Corp has tapped Bill Burck, a board member and Quinn Emmanuel partner, to lead the search to replace the company’s powerful chief legal officer, Viet Dinh. Dinh, leaving after leading the disastrous Dominion defense, is said to be pushing his deputy, Jeff Taylor, for the job. The other top candidates for the job are said to be DC political lawyers like Dinh, including the former Solicitors General Noel Francisco and Paul Clement, rather than experienced corporate crisis managers. One twist: Dinh, whose compensation ran into the eight-figures, was also the handler and stand-in for the company’s nominal CEO, Lachlan Murdoch. It’s not entirely clear who will run the company in his absence.

From Manchester to Hudson Yards: Just before joining CNN, Mark Thompson invested in a Mancunian newsletter.

News

Manila Mystery: A major Philippine website reported that a top politician, Martin Romualdez, gave $1 million to fund a new Tagalog course at Harvard University — then quietly removed the article. Readers might have wondered where he got the money. “It’s the latest in a number of instances of Philippine news sites taking down reports on the country’s powerful politicians and businessmen,” the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported.

Trends: Financial news is wrestling with the same questions, from fake news to personalization, as general news — often with higher stakes, former Bloomberg exec Ted Merz tells Smarter Markets.

Hollywood

The awkwardness of the ongoing Hollywood writers and actors strikes is on full display at the Venice Film Festival. Promotional duties are falling to directors like David Fincher, who is trying to avoid angering the studios, actors, and writers while promoting his film The Killer. Others are hoping viral moments can fill in for absentee stars: Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan couldn’t attend the festival to promote Maestro, so the post-credit audience duties fell to Leonard Bernstein’s children, who performed an impression of their father’s conducting.

False Advertising: A Maryland federal judge tossed a fan lawsuit over a trailer for Yesterday that included Ana de Armas — who was cut from the film. The problem: One of the plaintiffs paid to download the movie twice.

Tech

Gray Lady Delusions: Barry Diller won’t let the New York Times’ decision not to participate in his coalition on artificial intelligence (first reported here) stop him. In an interview with Kara Swisher, Diller said that while he believes the Times is supportive of the effort “in spirit,” he said there was “a bit of delusion” about the kind of deals they can make with technology companies.

“Let everybody make their deals, they’re irrelevant,” he said. “Those deals aren’t going to solve the problem. The problem only gets solved if, in fact, copyright law says: you can’t take my stuff. Out of that will come either the survival of publishing as we know it, as it exists today — because the LLMs will not be effective — or will come an economic solution that is good for all the parties or they won’t make a deal.”

Marketing

Football and Beer: Bud Light’s new campaign from The Martin Agency celebrates “the Sunday rituals of real football fans across the country, from a New York Giants devotee who has been a season ticket member for 63 years and is known for his gameday mussels, to a military veteran who never missed a Philadelphia Eagles game even when she was deployed.” Adweek reports that the company is rebuilding its market share with … beer drinkers, apparently an important demographic if you’re selling beer.

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