Friday, March 21, 2008

The original media entrepreneur missionaries

Media entrepreneurs are either "missionaries or merchants," as I've written before. My research partner Ben Compaine came up with the term when he remembered another media scholar had coined the phrase 50 years ago to describe early magazine entrepreneurs. The term "missionaries" got me thinking.

Religious media groups, particularly evangelical and fundamentalist Christian ministries, may well have been the earliest media entrepreneurs in the U.S. Some of the most active publishers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries were spiritually motivated organizations, Moody being established by the 1870s. They saw publishing as a way to spread the good news, as it were. Growth in demand for Christian media content today is served by thousands of new entrants and long-established small enterprises. Whether for-profit or not, whether large or small, whether family-owned or publicly traded stock companies, they all appear to be "missionaries." Based on a small sample I've analyzed, these "missionary missionaries" can act just like any successful media entrepreneur. They are early adopters of information and communications technologies (ICTs). They compete by exploiting unserved niches left behind by big media conglomerates. Their strategic behavior looks a lot like those used by so-called big media.

Early Adopters. Christian evangelists are often the among the very earliest adopters of ICTs from radio broadcasting in the 1920s to IPTV today. Adoption of radio broadcasting by evangelist groups emerged before there was ever a model of commercial radio and likewise, as soon as television broadcasting licenses became available, evangelists lined up to apply. One of the very first DBS licensees issued by the FCC in the early 1980s was a Christian television start-up, Sky Angel. Sky Angel recently launched their multi-channel tv and radio service on IPTV -- another example of early ICT adoption. Booples, a tiny start-up Christian-based producer of children's animation (see my earlier post), adapted a range of off-the-shelf software packages and collaborates online with free-lance suppliers.

Serving the Unserved. As my prior research has shown, media entrepreneurs don't fear the big media conglomerates like Time Warner or Disney, they practically rejoice at all the opportunity big media fail to see. So it is with missionary missionaries. The Bible is the best selling book year in, year out. But who sees this as an opportunity? Tynedale House Publishing is a tiny family-owned business in suburban Chicago yet they hold a full 10 percent of the market share for religious publishing, a nearly $1 billion/year business. Early on, niche record labels like Provident Music Group identified the incipient Christian music market (and by the time the major labels figured it out, their only means of establishing a foothold was to buy in -- Sony/BMG now owns Provident). Telemundo and Univision may have dominated the U.S. Spanish broadcasting market but did they see the substantial demand for evangelical and fundamentalist Spanish programming? A host of "missionary missionaries" did.

Strategic Behavior. Vertical and horizontal integration. Mergers and acquisitions. Inimitable business models. Exclusivity arrangements. Scale economies.These are a few of the numerous ways "missionary missionaries" have attained and sustained competitive advantage. The 5th and 7th largest radio station group owners (but still small by radio business standards) are respectively AFA and Salem Communications, both conservative Christian-based enterprises; they got that way through acquisition. Salem has taken integration further by expanding horizontally into other product markets (magazine publishing and web) and geographically -- they hold positions in 23 of the top 25 U.S. cities. A broadcast TV and cable network operator, TBN's diversification strategies include developing brands around four different networks for four completely different audiences.

I'm barely scratching the surface of this complex media market. Most companies are privately held and many are non-commercial so it may not be easy to fully describe the industry. Even the many Christian media trade organizations (NRB, GMA, etc.) don't have a full grip on what's going on. But I believe it's dominated by media entrepreneurship. Big media has just begun to see what they've been missing.