Listen to this article
From the first printed books to newspapers, radio, film, television and the internet, media have always been fuelled by technology. The pioneers of this rapidly evolving industry all succeeded in harnessing technology for their own benefit but are also united by drive, passion, aggression and a willingness to take risks.
The common thread that links the media pioneers is their ability to transcend the industries they started in, often using them as a springboard for additional, even greater, success.
To become a groundbreaker and a power in media is to know how to market, sell, promote and create. It entails being ahead of consumers and audiences, and anticipating what will interest or entertain them.
Consider Walt Disney. He was an accomplished illustrator and artist who grew up at a time of great change in motion pictures. The silent era gave to way to the “talkies”; black and white became colour. Animation, thanks to Disney, became an entertaining and highly profitable form of storytelling.
Disney did not rest on his laurels. Television had become a mass-market medium and he embraced it enthusiastically. He also extended further into physical media, building the first modern theme park — Disneyland, in California — creating a template the company continues to employ. Its characters and stories fuel interest in its parks and consumer products, and vice versa.
While Disney was creating a new, cinematic art form, a continent away another media pioneer was inheriting his father’s newspaper publishing group — and plotting how to push it on to the global stage. Rupert Murdoch was raised in Australia surrounded by news — his father was a war correspondent who became a newspaper publisher.
After the younger Murdoch inherited the company in 1952 he bought papers in the UK and US but, like Disney, recognised that owning other media could turbocharge his company. In the 1980s he acquired a Hollywood movie studio and launched the fourth US broadcast network; in 1990 he brought pay TV to the UK with the Sky satellite service, using the acquisition of exclusive rights to Premier League football to turn the business into a television force.
Today, Murdoch’s strategy has been adopted by every big media company. In an era of fragmenting audiences, exclusive sports rights continue to bring in advertisers and viewers. Murdoch, like Disney, took his cues from those around him, such as Ted Turner, who created CNN, the first rolling news network, but created an approach that was unique. For example, CNN ushered commercial TV news into a new era with its coverage of the first Gulf war, while Sky News in the UK borrowed heavily from CNN’s style but has carved its own path.
With Murdoch owning newspapers in multiple countries, they became a global industry, a byword for political and financial clout. Murdoch’s papers, in particular, helped to shape, as well as reflect, popular opinion. For example, The Sun tabloid in the UK famously declared on its front page in 1992, after the Labour party had lost to the Conservatives in a general election, that it was “The Sun Wot Won It”.
Others have sought to turn financial clout into the political variety. Michael Bloomberg built the world’s largest privately owned provider of news and financial information, using his riches to launch a political career: he served three terms as mayor of New York.
He realised early on that the traders, analysts and investors that used his company’s data terminals were also interested in news, so he built a vast global news operation to produce coverage for his network. His political days are behind him, and today he is in the midst of restructuring his news operation with the aim of building a global player that has influence well beyond the reach of his financial terminals. Television will be a central part of Bloomberg’s new news strategy: despite a fragmenting audience lured away by other forms of entertainment, the medium remains a potent force.
That potency was harnessed by former used-car salesman and Formula One motor racing team owner Bernie Ecclestone to promote F1 from a minority interest to a sport watched by millions, his deals with TV companies also cementing the synergy between the media and sport.
Meanwhile, in front of the camera, no individual has done more to harness that power than Oprah Winfrey, who used the platform of a daytime chat show to create an empire. She was able to anticipate what audiences wanted at an early stage.
As technology continues to wreak havoc on the distribution of news and entertainment, the next generation of media and sport pioneers will need to be similarly adaptable.
William Bernbach was a creative visionary who tore up the advertising rule book with campaigns that relayed powerful, persuasive messages to consumers with simplicity, humour and efficiency, writes Matthew Garrahan.
One of advertising’s original “Mad Men”, he relished defying convention and had little time for the data-driven, quantitative approach to advertising the marketing industry had started to embrace in the 1940s and 1950s. “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art,” he once wrote.
He was the most skilled practitioner of this art form. His 1959 “Think Small” campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle was typical Bernbach, bucking the trend at the time by presenting only a limited amount of information about the vehicle and stressing its uniqueness and qualities throughout. The series of black and white print ads made such an impact that in 1999 Advertising Age magazine named it the best campaign ever produced.
His impact was felt far and wide, not just in New York, the home of US advertising, but in the UK too, where his creativity-first approach was later embraced by pioneering companies such as Saatchi & Saatchi.
The Bronx-born Bernbach employed intelligent, original copywriters. He was among the first in the industry to pair a copywriter with an art director, creating two-man teams — a model that quickly became the industry norm. He prized humour and clarity and consistently sought to forge an emotional connection with consumers.
He was born in 1911 and graduated from New York University in 1932. A brief stint at a distiller followed — there he had his first professional experience of marketing, landing a job in the advertising department.
After serving in the second world war and then working at a couple of agencies, he struck out on his own, starting a new business with peers Ned Doyle and Maxell Dane. DDB opened for business in 1949.
Advertising — and society — were in a period of intense flux after the war, but Bernbach succeeded in cutting through the clutter. He was passionate about the power of the communications industries and only took on clients whose products he respected.
Advertising had a social responsibility, he once wrote. “We must practise our skills on behalf of society,” he said. “We must not just believe in what we sell. We must sell what we believe in.”
He stepped aside as DDB chief executive in 1976, having changed advertising for ever.
A corner of Bloomberg’s vast Manhattan headquarters on Lexington Avenue is devoted to the history of the company, founded in 1981 by Michael Bloomberg, writes Matthew Garrahan.
Its first terminals are housed in several adjoining glass cabinets, showing the evolution of the technology and the sharp growth in subscriptions that made Bloomberg a global powerhouse in news and financial information, and its founder one of the world’s richest men.
The 73-year-old, three-time New York City mayor made his money by appreciating and utilising the power of real-time data, which his company delivers to subscribers all over the world.
In 1990 he launched a news service for Bloomberg’s subscribers, hiring the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Winkler as its first editor. Bloomberg’s reasoning was that the more informed clients were about current events and the more real-time data they had at their disposal, the better investment decisions they could make.
Both bets paid off. Bloomberg’s terminals are a fixture on every trading floor, while its founder has kept complete control of his company, resisting the lure of the public markets and amassing a personal fortune Forbes estimates at $35bn.
He had to work for his success. Born in Medford, Massachusetts, he took out loans to pay for his education at Johns Hopkins University and even worked as a car park attendant.
In 2001 he successfully ran for mayor of New York, satisfied his company could manage without him. He passed several pieces of landmark legislation, including a ban on smoking in public places, that was gradually adopted by other countries and cities around the world.
He used the platform of mayor to make a strong case for strict new regulations to curb gun violence, becoming one of the most vocal opponents of the National Rifle Association, the powerful US lobby group that has succeeded in resisting attempts to reform gun ownership laws.
After his third term as mayor he returned to his company with the aim of making it a more influential player in news. Bloomberg had, in his absence, acquired Business Week magazine and revamped the title. More recently, Bloomberg has pooled its news output into a single website, integrated it with its video and radio services and hired John Mickelthwait, editor of The Economist, to replace Winkler as editor in chief.
The jury is still out on whether this news revamp will succeed. Whatever the outcome, though, Bloomberg has laid out a challenge to media rivals.
Walt & Roy Disney
Walt Disney was raised with an appreciation for the value of money and hard work. When he was 10 his family fell into financial difficulties and was forced to sell its farm. After moving to Kansas City the young Disney would rise at 3.30am to help his father deliver newspapers, writes Matthew Garrahan.
Out of this childhood emerged a preternaturally talented artist and entrepreneur who invented animated cinema and redefined the modern media landscape by creating films and television programmes for children and their families. With his elder brother Roy managing the financial operations of the company they started, the duo changed the face of Hollywood.
After the bankruptcy of Laugh-o-Gram, an early company he had started, Walt moved to California. Roy was already there, and the two set up a mini-studio in their uncle’s garage.
Walt loved stories and when he and Roy built Disneyland in 1955 he modelled its Main Street USA thoroughfare on an idealised turn-of-the-century version of Marceline, the Missouri town where they spent most of their youth. Walt was unashamedly sentimental and, in his films at least, completely lacking in cynicism.
He also embraced technology, creating a “multiplane” camera for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves — the first feature produced entirely by hand-drawn animation — that placed several layers of artwork under a vertical camera to create the impression of depth and movement.
He realised he had to craft gripping stories to make his work stand out, so he separated the storyboard and animation functions at his fledgling company to create the most engaging tales. He also recognised he needed to keep growing and investing, so he ploughed the profits from Snow White into a site in Burbank, California, where he built America’s first large-scale animation studio.
Critical and commercial success came in abundance in the years that followed. Walt was an early proponent of television marketing, using his weekly television programme on the ABC network — which, years later, became part of the Disney empire — to promote his theme park and animated work.
Many companies in Hollywood and beyond have sought to emulate Disney over the years. And many would dearly love to get their hands on the Disney brand, which continues to rank among the world’s most respected.
There are plenty of reasons to be sniffy about Bernie Ecclestone, even appalled, writes Roger Blitz. The man who has run the Formula One car racing circus since the 1970s has praised Adolf Hitler, admired Vladimir Putin, disparaged women and spent years fighting off corruption allegations.
And yet, to look at F1 today you might assume it had long been destined to be a global sport, with its heady mixture of noise, danger, millionaire drivers and their entourages and celebrities swarming around the paddock. Far from it. Ecclestone battled political infighting among teams and the sport’s governing body, overcame a sceptical sponsorship industry, cajoled governments to build grand prix circuits and turned an amateur pastime into a formidable, money-making business.
He has done it through an obsessive interest in work and making money, ever since his wartime days turning a profit from his schoolmates by selling them stale cakes from the local baker.
Ecclestone sold second-hand cars in London, raced them and bought a racing team. F1 in the 1970s was still largely a collection of European enthusiasts. While they argued about petty disputes, he saw the bigger picture of television rights, sponsorship, international growth and an unending diet of drama and controversy to sustain interest. He also took risks when the foundations of the empire looked precarious, underwriting the travel costs of teams in the early days of his reign.
There were many who crossed him along the way, but he shrewdly allied himself to Max Mosley, then president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, motorsport’s governing body, to outmanoeuvre his enemies.
His tactics belong to an era when business was conducted on a nod and a wink. Even to this day, he talks about the “Ecclestone handshake” as preferable to signing contracts with new race promoters.
He also eschews the sport’s trappings of glory. For him, the sole purpose of attending a grand prix is to do business — he rarely stays for the race itself.
At the age of 84, he is still going strong. Many have predicted his demise — some have even tried to engineer it. Yet he remains in charge of the sport he largely created. That may not necessarily be in F1’s interest, but the real sign of his legacy is that F1 cannot envisage life without him.
Much can change in four years. In 2011, as the phone-hacking scandal was blowing up, Rupert Murdoch was in trouble — a media mogul humbled, as he told a parliamentary committee, by explosive allegations of wrongdoing at his UK tabloid newspapers, writes Matthew Garrahan.
The scandal that led to him closing his News of the World Sunday tabloid was a low point in a career that has spanned more than half a century. But in the years since then, Murdoch’s swagger has returned.
The 2013 separation of News Corp into two companies — one housing his print and publishing assets, the other an entertainment group consisting of his US television network, cable channels and movie studio — was a bold move. The two companies are now worth substantially more than their former, combined incarnation, and investors have responded positively to being given the choice between high-growth television and filmed entertainment or lower-growth newspapers.
If there was any doubting Murdoch’s return to form it was dispelled last summer when 21st Century Fox, his entertainment group, mounted an audacious $71bn offer for media group Time Warner. The bid campaign was short-lived — Fox eventually abandoned its proposal in the face of a hostile reception from Time Warner’s management — but it showed Murdoch had not lost his appetite for risk or excitement.
It is a trait that has characterised his career. After inheriting his father’s Australian newspapers in 1952 he began assembling the world’s biggest newspaper publisher, buying The Sun, Times and Sunday Times in the UK and the New York Post and, eventually, the Wall Street Journal in the US. In the process he established himself as a potent political force — a kingmaker to governments and prime ministers.
There have been many pivotal moments along the way. The launch of Sky Television in 1989 created the UK’s dominant satellite player, while the recent consolidation of Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia has spawned a pan-European pay-TV operation.
No one gave him much hope of unseating CNN when he launched the Fox News TV channel in 1996, but it eclipsed the Time Warner-owned operation a decade ago, its fiery blend of opinion and news resonating with the political heartland of America.
Murdoch relishes taking on the establishment, whether it is the UK political class, which sniffed at the upstart Australian when he first came to Europe, or the US media, which has had to get used to a much more competitive landscape since he first came to America.
He is not the young man he once was, but at 84, Murdoch remains energetic as well as intent on proving the doubters wrong.
Ted Turner was a disrupter long before the term became a buzzword for entrepreneurs, writes Ravi Mattu. He founded Cable News Network (CNN), the world’s first 24-hour all-news television channel and his most famous business, on June 1 1980. But the story of his media empire began almost 20 years earlier and was built on two key insights.
The first came when he bought his first TV station, a local channel in Atlanta, in 1970 and set out to create a national network. Following the lead of Home Box Office, a cable station that charged a monthly subscription fee, he realised he could use a satellite network rather than TV towers to beam content across the country, thus bypassing the traditional broadcasting industry.
Once he had established the network, he needed some content to fill it. This led to the second observation. Cable was starved of programming but Turner realised sports would lure viewers and advertisers. In 1976, he bought the Atlanta Braves baseball team for $10m for that purpose.
By the end of the decade, Turner was rich and successful. Yet he also was becoming increasingly politically engaged, which was the backdrop to his decision to launch CNN.
The network focused mostly on domestic news in its early years, but after Turner accepted an invitation from Fidel Castro to visit Cuba, this began to change. The Cuban leader, who watched the station beamed from Florida, encouraged the American to push it out internationally. In 1982, the station started broadcasting in Asia and, three years later, in Europe.
The network’s seminal moment came during the first Gulf war in August 1990. CNN broadcast from Baghdad during the conflict 24 hours a day, when many other networks had quit the city. Again, a smart investment in technology was also key. The network acquired portable satellite systems that would allow it to broadcast even when Iraq’s telecommunications systems were destroyed by western bombing. CNN — and Turner — won acclaim.
Turner is no longer involved in the business. Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner in 1996, and in 2000 the group was acquired by AOL, the internet company. CNN’s founder was not part of the new management’s plans.
Still, even outside the corporate world, he was ahead of his peers. In 1997, years before other billionaires such as Bill Gates pledged to donate much of their wealth and time to charitable causes, Turner said he would give $1bn to the UN.
In philanthropy, as well as business, then, Turner was a pioneer.
It is almost 30 years since the press first identified Oprah Winfrey as a pioneer, writes Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. In 1986, the Washington Post labelled her a standard bearer for “the new black woman”, who was “moving into an American economic and social mainstream few blacks had experienced previously, helping to widen and redefine women’s roles in the nation and bury some of the myths and stereotypes of race and gender”.
That year, the young woman from rural Kosciusko, Mississippi, graduated from her Chicago network to host a nationally syndicated television show. She soon built it into the biggest talk show on US TV.
Not being white, male, skinny or from one of America’s coastal media hubs, she became an aspirational symbol for previously neglected audiences that continued to identify with her even as she began to amass what Forbes estimates is a $3bn fortune.
Those audiences have followed her from daytime television to a radio station, a magazine joint venture with Hearst, films, websites, apps and — after The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in 2011 — the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, a cable network operated with Discovery. The one-time teenage radio announcer has become a fixture at the Sun Valley gathering of (mostly male) media moguls, and Starbucks now sells an Oprah-branded blend of chai.
Winfrey’s tissues-at-the-ready interviews and exhortations to “live your best life” also pointed the way for a more confessional, self-centred era in media, with her empathetic approach styled to be uplifting and empowering for audiences sharing in the intimate problems she brought to their screens. Sometimes, the problems were her own — she is a novel star whose fame depends on regularly stepping down from the pedestal fans put her on.
You can only fully judge someone’s pioneering impact when you see who has followed his or her lead. It has become increasingly clear that Winfrey also pioneered the concept of a celebrity being a commercial brand that could cross media and subjects to be as comfortable promoting tea as she is recommending a self-improving novel.
The digital age has rattled radio ratings, magazine circulation and TV audience figures, but the business of being famous has just kept on growing, becoming ever more lucrative as it draws marketers like moths to its spotlight. Over the span of her career, there has been no more consistent growth business in media than celebrity, and there has been no more successful celebrity than Oprah Winfrey.
Letter in response to this article: