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Media Fri Jul 09 2010

Missing the Point: A Comical Hearing on Comcast-NBCU

[This is Part 2 of a series. Click here to read Part 1]

"I want you to know you have failed miserably."

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) looked squarely at the two executives sitting in the central Loop courthouse, punctuating an otherwise dry morning of testimony.

But Paula Madison of NBCU and Joseph Waz, Jr. of Comcast appeared unmoved in the face of their accuser and the congressional subcommittee that convened yesterday morning to discuss the consequences of a proposed $28 billion mega-merger between their two companies. The deal would give the nation's largest cable and broadband provider control over the country's fourth-largest media and entertainment company.

Officially, the congressmen were supposed to examine the merger's benefits, but the indisputable focus of the hearing was diversity. Several public interest and minority media groups have been ringing an alarm on the deal, fearing what might follow the consolidation of two media companies with bad records of diversity both behind and in front of the camera.

In this vein, Rep. Waters took her allotted time to read a summary list of Comcast and NBCU executives, board members, producers, actors and even news anchors who are white. In case she failed to make her point verbally, her office distributed a packet with full-color pictures of the employees along with written descriptions such as "white," "black" and "partial" (or in Ann Curry's case, "born in Guam").

Rep. Waters has been at this a long time. In April, she authored a bill forcing the FCC to extend its deadline for filing public comments on the merger. She even accused Comcast officials of trying to bribe her last month at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. But yesterday her comprehensive ethnicity list seemed out of place, especially given the merger-friendly atmosphere.

In his opening statement, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) addressed the deal with lukewarm abstraction, stressing the need to avoid definitions in such a "dynamic" and ever-changing industry. Later in the hearing, he took the time to personally compliment the CEO of Comcast's co-owned Hip Hop on Demand, saying he'd followed and admired the exec's career for some time.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) released his own odd press release, complete with both logical and typographical eccentricities. One sentence about the deal reads: "It represents a REAL opportunity that minority businesses and investors MUST NOT MISS." (Emphasis his.) Still, it seems that Rush (who in 2006 voted against strengthening the FCC's power over telecoms like Comcast) wants to appear tough on the merger. He called for further conditions to be placed on the deal, stressing that Comcast's current promises "DO NOT go FAR ENOUGH."

What promises? Glad you asked.

Comcast made a batch of guarantees on diversity and local coverage after its last congressional hearing in LA. Since then, the company's been meeting with more Latino and African-American groups, as well as Chicago's NBC affiliate stations, and produced further agreements to make the whole gang happy. Those agreements include:

  • Continue providing free broadcast TV
  • Maintain the same amount of local news currently produced by NBC stations for three years following the merger
  • Produce an additional 1,000 hours annually of local news
  • Launch a new Spanish language channel (using old programs from Telemundo's archives)
  • Add 10 independent networks over a three-year period, half with minority-geared programming or ownership

These are only a few of the voluntary agreements that Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) today called "extensive," and indeed represent a significant commitment to improving the company's record on diversity. If the merger were approved and the promises carried out, there would be a positive shift in online and television programming both produced by and featuring minorities.

The problem is that none of this matters.

Comcast's promises don't matter, because they don't have to follow through.
There's no guarantee that Comcast will live up to its word, and recent merger history shows us they won't. It's already clear that the company is avoiding details where it can. When Rep. Boucher asked about specifics guaranteeing diverse content in primetime slots, Comcast's Joseph Waz could only say he was "hopeful" and NBCU's Paula Madison pointed to a "positive trend" in diverse content. Comcast and NBCU can make as many promises as they want and the politicians can earn points for demanding conditions, but once the deal is done nobody will hold them to it.

Studying the diversity aspect of the merger doesn't matter, because it isn't the real problem.
Since the very first rumblings of this deal, the greatest concern can be summed up in one word: monopoly. Media consolidation is scary because it has harmful effects: layoffs, reduced market choice, higher fees, online price discrimination and less access for marginalized populations. Diversity and local coverage are just symptoms of one root problem -- the colossal consolidation of Chicago's media through vertical integration. Today's hearing was dedicated to pushing the fantastical notion that diversity would be maintained and even increased under a monopolized market. Addressing a representative of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Rep. Buyer asked "Do you want me to believe that minority ownership directly relates to minority programming?" The better question is, Do Congress and Comcast want us to believe that competition does not directly relate to minority ownership? Today's hearing made it clear that the answer to both questions is yes.

And lastly...

The subcommittee's hearing on diversity doesn't matter, because the process was a farce.
The hearing took only two hours, the vast majority of which comprised prepared statements and not explicit questioning. Of the dozens of subcommittee members supposed to scrutinize this deal, only three showed up, including the committee's chairman. In addition, the hearing on diversity was comically lacking in divergent voices. Three of the five witnesses worked for Comcast, NBCU and a Comcast co-owned cable property. Two of them had already testified, one month before, with nearly identical testimony. The fourth witness was a lawyer for EarthLink, an independent ISP whose testimony only related to broadband competition and was subsequently forgotten for the duration of the hearing. That left one witness against the merger, the industry-illiterate Rainbow PUSH Coalition. To top it all off, hardly anyone from the Chicago community showed up, except a few longtime media activists from the left.

It all added up to a comical soapbox session which Rep. Maxine Waters boiled down in an unexpected nugget of wisdom: The devil's in the details.

Next Tuesday, July 13, the FCC will host a public forum from 1pm to 8pm at Northwestern University Law School's Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago Ave. But if today's hearing reflects the quality of public scrutiny facing Comcast, it may not be much of a fight.

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