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Thursday, Jul 15, 2010, 11:52 am

At Public Hearing, Citizens Speak Out Against—and For—Comcast/NBC Merger

By Margaret Smith

(Photo by Camille Lepage)

CHICAGO—The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a public hearing at Northwestern University’s Law School in downtown Chicago on Tuesday, discussing the proposed merger between Comcast and entertainment giant NBC Universal (NBCU). Announced last December, the merger would (if approved by the FCC ) allow Comcast to take a majority stake in NBCU from General Electric in a $30 billion deal.

The hearing—the first held by FCC since the merger was proposed—mainly focused on how the merger would affect other media markets, specifically the ever-growing market for Internet video. NBC owns Hulu.com, and merger opponents (like Free Press) worry that if the deal goes through, Comcast will withhold shows owned by NBC from other cable Internet providers.

Comcast maintains that it has no incentive to withhold NBC shows from other Internet distributors. An online Comcast video report written by Mark Israel and Mike Katz says that “there is no basis for expecting withholding current NBCU networks from online providers could significantly harm the ability of an online provider to attract or retain subscribers.”

That assurance wasn’t enough for FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, though, who in a statement at the meeting on Tuesday said, “I cannot, I will not, accept half-hearted pledges of fairness from industry when the future of the Web is at stake. And right now the assurances and conditions we have received on this Comcast/NBCU proposal don’t pass the red-face test. How many times do we have to experience the fall-out when critical decisions are entrusted on lot those in industry without credible public policy oversight?”

Copps also mentioned the importance of diversity within the media during his statement, calling the Comcast/NBC merger a threat to this “central tenet of our FCC mandate” and noting that minorities own only 3.15 percent of full-power commercial TV stations and women own only about 5.8 percent of those stations, while comprising more than half the population. “Those numbers are appalling,” Copps said. “They mean that not only are minorities not getting a fair share of the action, but that their interests, their particular challenges, the many contributions they make to our nation’s daily life, just don’t get anything approaching the attention they should in all justice have.”

The question—or threat to—diversity was also brought up during the seven-hour meeting’s culminating public comment period, during which citizens expressed concern over the number of different voices in the market. Many also expressed worries about the Comcast merger's affect on public access TV and independent stations.


(Photo by Camille Lepage)

“Comcast owning so much of the media market would jeopardize diversity of voices, diversity of media ownership and open access,” said Dr. Lora Chamberlain, a progressive activist based in Chicago.

But not everyone present was there to bash the company. Over half the voices present were representatives from nonprofit organizations who told the commission how much their organizations have benefited from Comcast’s work as a corporate citizen and local partner. “Comcast has donated countless hours of free airtime…to share information about critical programs for some of the most underserved communities here in Chicago and beyond,” said Cynthia Schmidt from the Association House of Chicago, a social services nonprofit in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Since when did Comcast’s work as a corporate citizen have to do with the merger, though? That’s what Chamberlain asked.

“I am very glad that Comcast is a good corporate partner and good corporate citizen…I am happy about that. That will not change if the FCC says no to this merger,” Chamberlain said. “None of these programs will be in jeopardy. If Comcast and NBC merge, then the quality of our news sources, the quality of our education programs, the access to open, diverse voices, CAN TV, these voices are in jeopardy, not these social service programs.”

The FCC is expected to announce its decision on the deal later this year, or early next year. For more information or to file a public comment, visit the Comcast/NBC merger page on the FCC's website.

Margaret Smith, a summer 2010 In These Times editorial intern, is a journalism student at Columbia College in Chicago.

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