paidContent 50: The world’s most successful digital media companies

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Methodology: How we created the list

The paidContent 50 aims to rank companies’ success by the amount of revenue they earn from digital content.

To us, the “digital content” business includes news, information and entertainment distributed over IP and consumed digitally by end users, be they consumers or businesses. For some companies, that may mean direct sale of that content to users; for others, it means the sale of advertising against that content (our list also includes the advertising companies that supply the ads that fund digital content).

We did not include either revenue from the hardware on which content can live nor the infrastructure pipes or spectrum through which it is transmitted. Although devices like iPad and Xbox and bandwidth like broadband and 3G are fuelling the digital content boom, they are beyond the scope of this list, which is to to examine the size of the content industry that is underpinned by hardware and bandwidth. (As Rupert Murdoch said, without content, they would merely be “empty vessels”). So we do not consider Kindle or iPhone sales in our Amazon or Apple profiles, for example.

Similarly, we do not factor in technology-services companies that host or distribute content. Social networking per se also does not constitute digital content – so our list does not consider paid networking sites, but it does account for advertising or paid content services on networking services.

We counted the revenue earned by companies in the last full year. For many companies, their respective fiscal year dates differ – but, broadly, the periods in question are either the 2011 calendar year or the 2011/12 fiscal year.

This year’s paidContent 50 is expanded to look at companies around the world, not just the U.S., and to include all their digital content revenue, wherever it is earned. It also includes some industry sectors  that we have not previously included, like business publishing. That means some U.S. companies on last year’s list have fallen off this year.

Getting  precise numbers for “digital content revenue” can be challenging. While some companies clearly disclosed their sales matching that description, others are diverse operators with several divisions, each executing digital products but none of them breaking out what we might have liked to identify.

We looked at both public and private companies. For public companies, we relied in part on financial filings  — but, even so, we often needed to go farther. We had to decide, for example, which revenue matched our definition and sometimes we had to find figures that weren’t included/broken out in those financial disclosures.

For private companies, we examined research and news reports, spoke with contacts (some in the companies concerned, others outside) and analysts, and mined other sources.

For many companies, we have what we know to be accurate figures. For others, we freely acknowledge that the digital revenue figures are estimates, albeit educated ones. In each case, on company profile pages, we have provided sources and our rationale so that you how we arrived at our figures, be they estimates or actuals. And in each case where there were questions about a company’s digital revenue figure, we gave the company a chance to provide that number.

In our research, with companies that disclosed in foreign currencies, we used the company’s home-country currency, converting to U.S. dollar at the end of July 2012.

A couple of additional notes about our final rankings:

* In our table, WPP and Thomson Reuters appear tied with the same revenue, $4.71 billion. But these figures were rounded up for brevity. We put WPP ahead because, as our profiles show, WPP made $4,715,457,336, compared with Thomson Reuters’ $4,709,070,000.

* In our table, Comcast, Time Warner and Hearst appear tied for digital revenue, with $1.5 billion each. We used the companies’ total revenue to break the tie, and so the final rankings are ordered based on that figure.

* In our table, Cox and CBS are tied with the same revenue, $1.2 billion. We put Cox ahead because, due to fast digital expansion last year, we believe our best researched estimate may slightly under-estimate the true number.

* In our table, Disney and Viacom appear tied with the same revenue, $1 billion. We put Disney ahead because CEO Bob Iger said Disney was earning “more than” $1 billion but could not be more specific.

We think the paidContent 50 represents one of the best efforts out there to quantify revenue success in digital media. But no such list can ever be perfect. This year’s list, like last year’s and next year’s to come, is a work-in-progress. We hope you will continue the conversation started by the list. If you have different revenue numbers than you see here for companies on the list, or think that there are companies that aren’t here but should be — and can tell us why — please add your voice to the discussion in the comment fields, or email us.

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