A Brewing Clash with Dominant Players in Digital Advertising

For reasons that make little sense today, advertisers in the Internet’s digital marketplace are not monitored by a common federal agency. The multiple agencies involved have peculiar regulatory outlooks and lack authority to holistically monitor the marketplace. This has led to an incomplete view of how dominance is growing and of how competitors are interacting.

The Federal Communications Commission has no authority to regulate the Internet’s digital advertising behemoths (Google and Facebook), who together control 80% of the advertising revenues from the Internet. On the other hand, the FCC imposes draconian regulations on Internet service providers (ISPs) who pay for and operate the local mobile and wireline networks (some with telephone heredity) that deliver consumers’ access to the Internet. Local TV and Cable TV operators are lightly governed by the FCC. Internet advertising conducted by newspapers or magazines is governed by neither the FCC nor Federal Trade Commission the (FTC).

The (FTC) is responsible for ensuring that companies do not breach commitments they make to consumers. The FTC helps protect consumers’ privacy and the FTC can assure that companies do not abuse their market power. The FTC was assigned the job of monitoring US companies’ compliance with European privacy laws where applicable. The FTC is precluded from regulating those firms (such as ISPs) that fall under the FCC’s purview. Where the FTC and FCC are likely to fail on behalf of the consumer is on topics such as antitrust or privacy.

In the early 1980s, a federal court decreed that AT&T violated antitrust laws and needed to be carved up into less efficient pieces. The outcome was that the FCC enjoyed several decades of interpreting and enforcing rococo regulations that prevented telephone companies from offering data services or long distance services. The likelihood of an antitrust proceeding is increasing as the digital advertising market becomes more concentrated and as new entrants encounter barriers to entry. Newspapers, magazines, local TV stations, Cable TV operators and Internet service providers are attempting to enter the digital advertising market controlled by the incumbent behemoths. These new entrants are propelled by the dwindling revenues from network service or print subscribership.

In 2015, consumer magazine advertising revenue was $17 billion. Adding in single copy and subscription sales, total consumer magazine revenues in 2015 were $24.6 billion. The five largest magazine publishers (Time, Hearst, Conde Nast, Meredith, and American Media) have total advertising sales of only $3.2 billion. The large magazine publishers have experimented with forays into digital content and advertising, but even the most successful companies (Time Inc. and Conde Nast) generate just 20% of their advert revenues from digital adverts. That suggests magazines’ digital advertising totals are less than $3 billion per year, perhaps $1 billion.

Advertising revenues at newspapers were $20 billion in 2015, and will be $16 billion in 2019. Newspapers’ digital adverts will total about $5.3 billion in 2019. The largest newspapers have been successful entering digital subscriptions and advertising. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times each had more than 150,000 digital subscribers as early as 2012. Others, such as USA Today, Investor’s Business Daily, Reuters and Bloomberg operate successful digital editions with a paywall. The difference between digital magazines and digital newspapers or journals is not obvious, consider: The Economist, Salon, Politico and The Atlantic.

Local TV stations had $28.4 billion in total revenues during 2016. Conventional local TV advertising was $20.5 billion in 2016 and $6.8 billion came from retransmission consent agreements. Digital advertising revenues are expected to grow to about $1 billion in 2017.

Compared with newspapers, magazines, and local TV stations, cable’s outlook is rosy despite the “cord-cutters, cord-shavers and cord-nevers” depleting U.S. cable operators’ video revenue. Fortunately, those losses are offset by broadband revenues. “Overall, cable operators’ residential revenues will be $108.4 billion in 2016.” Broadband will easily replace declines in TV and phone service. Cable advertising revenue is estimated to be $4.2 billion in 2017. Depending on competition and cable’s own strategy in the broadband, mobile and streaming sectors, perhaps half of cable’s advertising will be digital advertising.

The above revenue numbers are from different experts and were generated during different time periods, but the overall picture of the marketplace is clear. The 2017 US digital advert market will total $80 billion, held 40% by Google and 37% by Facebook. Magazine and newspaper publishers are estimated to have 6.6% of the digital advertising market. Another 7% is shared among Microsoft, Snapchat, Verizon, Amazon and Twitter. Cable TV players probably account for 4.2% of digital advertising. Chinese digital giants (Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent) are similar in scale to Facebook but they have just 3% of the US digital advertising market. AT&T and others vie for the last 2.2%.

Facebook and Google clearly dominate the digital advertising marketplace and newspaper publishers want the dominance of Facebook and Google formally acknowledged. The Wall Street Journal “is asking for a limited antitrust exemption from Congress. It wants newspapers to be permitted to band together to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook in an attempt to alter the pair’s dominance of the digital advertising industry.” This comes at an inconvenient time for Google, which faces an antitrust finding in the European Union.

It is not too early to think through what concessions and which regulator, if any, would produce the most advantageous outcome for US consumers.