Senator Al Franken, the former media personality who has emerged as one of the savviest analysts of media policy in Washington, got it exactly right when he termed the anticipated merger of Comcast and NBC Universal a "disaster."
Like many critics of the deal the Federal Communications Commission approved by a 4-to-1 vote on January 17 (and that the Justice Department's anti-trust division OK'd the same day), the Minnesota Democrat focused on immediate concerns about America's largest cable and Internet company merging with one of the country's oldest and largest news and entertainment producers. "When the same company owns the content and the pipes that deliver that content, consumers lose," explained the senator. That complaint parallels objections raised by Stop Big Media, a coalition of consumer, labor and community groups that objected to the deal, which studies suggest will cost cable viewers as much as $2.4 billion over the coming decade.
But a second objection voiced by Franken, echoing other critics of the merger, is even more unsettling: "Allowing this merger to proceed could lead to subsequent deals, leaving Americans at the mercy of a few powerful media conglomerates."
This deal, which confident Comcast executives were moving to implement even before receiving the formal approvals, will usher in an era of media conglomeration unprecedented in the history of a country where media ownership is already far too consolidated. The details of this plan are daunting: Comcast is poised to control one in five hours of all TV viewing in the United States; to own more than 125 major cable channels, television stations, websites, film studios and related production facilities; and to dominate local media controlling cable and Internet service and TV stations in major cities across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders overstates nothing when he argues that "this new media giant will be the largest cable provider, the largest Internet provider and one of the largest producers of content in the United States. At a time when a small number of giant media corporations already control what the American people see, hear and read, we do not need another media conglomerate with control over the production and distribution of media content. What we need is less concentration of ownership, more diversity, more local ownership-and more viewpoints."
Small cable providers joined consumer groups to object to the Comcast-NBCU merger, but most major media and telecom firms were conspicuously silent as Comcast (which ranked fourth among corporate contributors to 2010 election campaigns) spent an estimated $100 million lobbying for approval of the deal. Why? Comcast's competitors know that with the approval of this merger, it is hard to imagine any deal that might be considered too big, too monopolistic or too threatening to democracy. And make no mistake, deals of this sort pose a huge threat to the discourse that is essential to civil society.
Under pressure to meet the requirement that a merger must serve the public interest, Comcast made vague promises to increase news and public affairs programming by 1,000 additional hours a year in media markets where it will dominate communications, and to forge partnerships between NBC stations and local nonprofit news sites. While that may sound like a concession, the 1,000 additional hours amounts to only sixteen minutes per day, per station. In a letter outlining the corporation's "commitment," Comcast tells the FCC that NBC and its stations will not be "obligated to broadcast, publish on an NBCU-controlled website, or otherwise exhibit or endorse any material produced by an Online News Partner." Comcast's well-documented history of opposing and obstructing local journalism efforts at public access and community TV stations leads Josh Stearns, who monitors journalism issues for Free Press and the Stop Big Media coalition, to bluntly declare, "Comcast's sudden commitment to nonprofit news seems suspect." Bernie Sanders is right when he suggests that the FCC will have a hard time keeping Comcast in line. "Once we allow companies to become this powerful, the FCC does not regulate them. They regulate the FCC," says the senator. The FCC will have a hard time saying no to competing companies that demand permission to create equally powerful combines.
The United States desperately needs a coherent media ownership policy for the digital era, and it also has to address the collapse of journalism forcefully, especially at the local level. But approving individual mergers as they occur is the wrong way to generate good policies, unless one is a shareholder in one of the new mega-super-conglomerates.
This disaster points up the need for Congress and the FCC to open legislative and public hearings on the scope and character of media ownership in the digital age. We need hearings in which the communications firms and their battalions of hired guns do not dominate the proceedings and are not assumed to be the rightful rulers of culture and journalism. Let the 99.999 percent of Americans who have to live with the consequences of these mergers-the Americans who have a great if not always respected material stake-join the debate. There is an important precedent: because of pressure from the courts, Congress and citizens generated during and after the 2003 debate over media ownership rule changes, the FCC held a series of open hearings across the country on the future of media. The input was just the opposite of what the corporations and their hirelings were saying. We need another dose of popular common sense, as the rush to merge content providers and distributors goes to the heart of debates about diversity, localism and serving the public interest; if the American people are brought into those debates, they will be the best counter to telecom industry lobbying.
The Comcast-NBCU merger will likely establish dangerous new precedents for media mergers that will make a mockery of anti-trust laws. Unless we have hearings and legislative and regulatory action now, we fear that Sanders will be proved right when he suggests that we are standing at the precipice of an era of mergers and acquisitions that will "make an already bad situation of media consolidation far worse."