By Samuel S. Kang
The Federal Communications Commission will soon face one of the most important decisions it has ever made: Whether to permit Comcast, the massive cable TV and Internet provider, to merge with NBC Universal, one of the world’s largest news and entertainment content providers.
Comcast is not exactly loved by consumers: In a 2009 Forrester Research survey of customer satisfaction, Comcast ranked number 105 out of 113 companies. It has faced credible accusations of censorship of Internet and cable TV content and advertising.
The FCC has extended the deadline for written comments on the merger – good, but not enough. Because there are good reasons to worry about what sort of content this new mega-company will make available to customers, and at what cost, the FCC needs to do a thorough, public examination of the two companies’ records before making its decision.
Because this merger will affect every American’s access to information, we need to know that independent program producers won’t be stifled, and that material produced by and for minority communities won’t become even more scarce than it is today. We need to know that the workforce of this new company will include Americans of all backgrounds, and that those diverse voices won’t be relegated to entry-level positions.
These are not idle concerns. Recently, the National Hispanic Media Coalition issued a report card grading NBC-Universal on the diversity of its workforce, giving the company a grade of C+ and citing the complete absence of any Latinos in the its team of creative executives for a period of several years. According to the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, of the over 250 channels now offered by Comcast, none are 100 percent African-American owned.
These concerns are especially pressing in my home state of California, where people of color are a majority of the population. As the eighth largest economy in the world and a hub of worldwide news and entertainment media, my state may feel the effects of this merger more than any other place.
Here are just a few of the issues that should be fully aired in the FCC’s review of the merger:
Will the new company give an unfair advantage to its own programs? Currently, only 10 percent of NBC’s content is independently produced. And Comcast President and Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke testified under oath last year that Comcast treats its own programming services like “siblings,” providing preferential treatment. If Comcast owns NBC-Universal’s vast array of programming services – including the Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, USA, SyFY and Weather Channel cable networks – what will stop the new company from discriminating against competitors?
Consumer costs. One claimed advantages of this merger is that it will make the new company more efficient and reduce costs. But Comcast has said nothing about what this will do to the cable TV rates customers pay. Will consumers – who have watched rates escalate year after year – see any savings?
Minority programming and news. How many cable networks owned by people of color or women does Comcast now carry in its basic package, and what will the company do to maintain and expand access to such programming? It has been shown that local, Spanish-language television news can raise Latino voter turnout by more than four percentage points, but when NBC purchased Telemundo, local news broadcasts were cut in several cities with large Latino populations. Will the new company pledge to increase coverage of local issues affecting all the communities it serves?
This list just skims the surface of the many questions the proposed merger raises. The public deserves an open, thorough discussion before these two media giants are allowed to combine into a massive new corporation with nearly unprecedented influence.