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Comcast/NBC Merger Takes Media Consolidation to the 'Disaster' Level

Robert McChesney

 by The Nation

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."


© 2017 The Nation

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