The creation of AOL Time Warner provided a catalytic jolt to the world's stock markets, seemingly putting every major media and Internet company in play this week after lighting a fire under their share prices. Analysts were predicting not so much a ripple effect as a tidal wave of mergers and alliances as web players sought out content and software silos looked to conquer cyberspace.
But the fact that this week's deal combined the number one Internet service provider with the number one media company underlined just how difficult such a combination would be to replicate, particularly overseas where companies are smaller, markets more fragmented and regulations more thorny.
And it is far from clear who among this fray of potential suitors will eventually emerge as the new hunters - and who the prey. In the US, the spotlight has been thrown on every entertainment conglomerate from Sony, Disney and Viacom-CBS to News Corp and General Electric's NBC. MGM, with Hollywood's largest film library, is also seen as an attractive purchase. But for whom' Microsoft and AT&T have both declared their unwillingness to enter the content business, which leaves maybe the Bell phone companies and leading Internet portal Yahoo! as the best buyer bets. Just as AOL Time Warner linked two companies who derive their business from subscription-based distribution, so a Yahoo-Viacom hook-up could conceivably unite two giants whose livelihoods depend on aggregating eyeballs for advertisers.
In Europe, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL have taken advantage of the web without frontiers to control three of the five most heavily visited sites in the UK, France and Germany. But the field still largely belongs to local players like Britain's Freeserve, Spain's Terra Networks and Germany's T-Online (the Deutsche Telekom operation that ranks as Europe's largest ISP and is preparing to go public). All these are potent allies for any number of software houses, although so are the various mobile phone companies in a context where wireless and hand-held devices are fast becoming the preferred medium for web-browsing, over and above home-based monitors.
While analysts were cooler on the prospects of European takeovers, the wave of investment enthusiasm for all things media particularly helped those companies presumed to be Europe's alliance builders. The size matters argument was presumed to help Granada in its attempt to persuade the UK government to lift the limits on TV ownership and wave through its expected bid for Carlton Communications, United News & Media or both.
Gains for Canal Plus - potentially either a federator or a target - were sufficiently strong on Monday to cause share trading to be halted. And the rising tide lifted Lagardere, the missiles to magazines company with which Canal Plus is known to be hatching a satellite alliance. Its parent the phones and utilities group, Vivendi was another each way bet that paid off this week. The AOL Time Warner merger was seen to boost the chances of its allying with Telefonica, the Spanish telecoms group which operates the Via Digital pay-TV platform which could be merged with Canal Plus Spain.
One of the week's biggest gainers was UPC, the aggressively expansionist cable network operator, which gained over 20% to give a market capitalisation of $17.5bn, compared with its flotation value of $3.7bn just nine months ago.
In Germany it was content owners Constantin Films and EM.TV & merchandising that were the biggest winners, with gains of over 10%.
In Asia, prospects for consolidation are no less complicated. This has not stopped shares in various broadcasters including Tokyo Broadcasting System, Nippon Television Network, Fuji TV, TVB and Seoul Broadcasting Station from shooting up on the expectation that they too will enter the Internet game.
Also benefiting have been Internet investment firms such as Softbank of Japan and Pacific Century CyberWorks of Hong Kong. But perhaps an AOL Time Warner-style online/offline hybrid has already hatched in this part of the world, albeit on a more minor scale: in early November, Cable & Wireless HKT, Hong Kong's dominant phone company, unveiled an Internet TV joint venture with News Corp's Star TV that has ambitions to reach audiences across Asia.