Comcast rises to the top in what may be a record bad year for media companies

It sure has been a tough year for media companies, thanks to advertisers slashing budgets and consumers cutting back on spending. But just how bad has it been? According to Advertising Age, 2009 is on track to show the first-ever decline in media company sales since 1981, when the trade publication began a survey tracking the industry's top 100 companies.

The tumble in ad sales has actually helped one company move up in the AdAge ranking of media companies: Comcast Corp. (CMCSA). The cable operator comes out on top in the latest survey, helped by its steady growth in cable-service subscriptions. Comcast is now the biggest U.S. media company after Time Warner (TWX), which spun off its cable division and saw its ad sales plunge 15% in the first half of 2009. Time Warner had held the survey's top spot since 1995, the publication reports.
This year's survey was notable for another reason: 11 of the firms on last year's version have filed for bankruptcy protection, led by newspaper publishers. Among them was Freedom Communications, which ranks as the country's 61st-largest media firm in the survey, as the owner of California's Orange County Register sought bankruptcy protection last month. Not surprisingly, the newspaper sector showed a decline of more than 13% in revenue last year, marking the steepest drop among all media types, the AdAge survey found.

Sales in 2008 for the top 100 media companies rose just under 1 percent, marking the slowest revenue growth since 1991, AdAge says. Still, things are worse already in 2009, with revenue showing a 4.3% decline for the first six months.

Yet that's a slightly better than the drops reported by other media-tracking firms. TNS Media Intelligence says advertising spending during the first six months of 2009 tumbled 14.3%. (Newspaper ad sales were among the bottom performers there, too, falling 24% during the period, according to TNS.)

It's important to note, however, that the AdAge survey includes subscriptions from cable systems and satellite-TV operators, a generally steady revenue stream that's not tied to fluctuations in the ad market. So, with Comcast on top of the media heap, its unsolicited bid last week for a piece of General Electric Co.'s (GE) NBC Universal makes even more sense. While media companies dependent on advertising are losing ground, those like Comcast, with stable subscription fees, are able to parlay that into to bids for their troubled media brethren.
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