It’s not film, it’s TV:
rethinking industrial identity

by Jennifer Holt

In an entertainment landscape characterized by conglomerated ownership, transmedia and convergence, both film and television properties are essential holdings for all of the “Big Six” companies[1]][open endnotes in new window] dominating U.S.-based production and distribution. These properties are leveraged across media for purposes of cross-promotion, risk reduction and exploiting corporate holdings with maximum efficiency. And yet, the popular discourse and conceptualization of these media companies traditionally grants feature films and the film studios the primary emphasis or place of importance. They are usually the most identifiable elements of entertainment conglomerates—with arguable exceptions[2]—and film remains the medium with greater cultural caché. However, when it comes to balance sheets and bottom lines, film is a distant second to television. Increasingly, the business of motion pictures—the production, distribution and exhibition of feature films—has become less significant to the major conglomerates that populate the economic and cultural geography of what is commonly called “Hollywood.” In fact, these companies that are most closely associated with film studios are actually driven and supported by the television industry—particularly cable—far more so than by the production and distribution of feature films. Indeed, when viewed through the lens of their SEC filings and annual reports to shareholders, the Big Six primarily appear as giant television companies with some additional holdings in film. [See Appendix for 2010 summary of holdings.]

Media scholars have convincingly argued for and focused on film as the economic locomotive, or the main engine powering entertainment conglomerates.[3] However, when looking at these companies’ historical development and expansion, particularly since the late 1980s, it becomes clear that the conglomerates’ business model has evolved in ways that complicate and re-design that paradigm. In addition to the film industry growing increasingly dependent on revenues from home video and television distribution, it has become similarly reliant on earnings from television for profits. As such, the film and television industries have (re)negotiated their co-existence and financial interdependence, and in turn the two industries have redefined their relative importance to an entertainment conglomerate’s profile. It is fair to say that in many ways, television now helps keep the film business afloat.

There is excellent foundational work in media-studies literature on the historical cooperation and interdependence of the U.S. film and television industries.[4] As industrial profiles have evolved in response to developments in regulatory policy, technology, business strategies, and entertainment culture, television has become less of an “ancillary market” or additional revenue center for film and more of an economic imperative for what is commonly thought of as a “film company.” In researching this relation, I found that some of the most important primary sources to use for unpacking earnings distributions are corporate annual reports to shareholders and other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). These documents are incredibly revealing, yet at the same time, not at all so. On the one hand, accounting procedures often limit full disclosure about the precise nature of conglomerate income. On the other, a wealth of perspectives can be mined from such documents to understand the relative importance of television to the Big Six’ bottom line. This essay draws upon a critical analysis of these often-dismissed or overlooked sources to delineate the primacy of television, particularly cable, for the major media conglomerates’ financial health. I also hope to contribute to the larger historical and historiographical argument that we should pay greater attention to the parameters of accounting practices (and their resulting money trails) in our scholarly attempts to map/characterize/imagine the dimensions and identity of an industry.

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