Cheap Date

by DAVID ROSEN And BRUCE KUSHNICK

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) held a public hearing on July 13th about the merger of Comcast-NBC Universal at Northwestern University’s Chicago campus. It might turn out to be the only public hearing that the FCC holds on this all-important merger of two of the nation’s corporate titans and the future of media in America.

At the hearing, according to Firedoglake, “nonprofit organizations supported by Comcast flooded the microphones with talk of corporate citizenry and how Comcast had delivered on promises to them.” More pointedly, it revealed the pivotal role played by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in rallying support for the merger among “minority” civil rights group across the country. [Firedoglake, July 15, 2010]

Since the proposed merger was announced in December 2009, Comcast has undertaken a highly orchestrated campaign to secure minority group support for the acquisition. Leading minority groups like LULAC have joined a growing chorus of other civil rights organizations advocating on Comcast’s behalf. Most remarkable, all this support comes cheap, involving only empty promises, modest cash grants and pathetic photo-ops. All-too-many hungry non-profits will do almost anything for a buck and their action, sadly, most often negatively affects their core constituencies.

Civil rights groups have become the latest fronts in the public deception wars. They are joining Washington think tanks, compliant public relations firms, “astroturf” organizations, talking-head hucksters and mainstream media in singing the praises and promoting the special interests of the new American trusts. Co-opted civil rights groups like LULAC, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and National Association of the Deaf (NAD), receive corporate largess and, in turn, lobby on behalf of the company’s interests.

* * *

Since the proposed Comcast and NBC Universal (NBCU) deal was announced, Comcast has moved quickly to build “grassroots” support. It formed the “Joint Council” of minority groups covering the entire gamut of the civil rights community. The Joint Council is supposed to regularly issue reports on Comcast’s “progress against benchmarks” – as could be expected, these benchmarks are hollow promises and never tied to fixed goals.

Among the groups Comcast targeted for cooptation were “African American, Asian Pacific Islander, Native American, LGBT, Disabled, Veterans and other communities.” As Comcast and NBCU know, minority-group members are media and telecommunications savvy and have influence in Washington. This influence has special resonance among minority-group legislators, most often Democrats who could be expected to take a more critical view of the merger of two giant conglomerates.

Comcast and NBCU have taken special care cultivating support among what it calls its “Hispanic Advisory Council,” the Hispanic slice of the Joint Council. The Hispanic council is to be a nine-member group tasked to oversee the new conglomerate’s “strategic plan to improve diversity practices… .”

Perhaps most seductive, in Washington access is power and Comcast offers an incredible inducement: “The Hispanic Advisory Council will meet twice annually, including once a year with Comcast’s CEO.” In addition to LULAC, it has made overtures to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (HNLA), the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility (HACR) and the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC).

In the Comcast-NBCU proclamation founding the Hispanic Advisory Council, the media conglomerates focus on five critical areas that they insist will “improve diversity practices”: employment, procurement, programming, philanthropy and corporate governance. With each, they make “commitments” that are ostensibly the “benchmarks” against which their promises are to assessed. And with each, no hard goals were specified, only a meaningless willingness to “continue” and “strive,” nothing one can take to the bank.

In July, Comcast-NBCU extended a similar offer to another “minority” group, independent film and TV producers. It entered into a “deal” with the Independent Film & TV Alliance (IFTA), an industry trade association and an arm of the American Film Market. The deal points include: an annual “pitch” session for “up to 200 independent producers”; NBCU’s “cable group has agreed to take at least 15 pitches and the broadcast group at least 20 pitches in the six-month period”; fund “early development of new projects”; introduce “independent producers of television movies to advertisers looking to produce fully-sponsored MOWs [movies-of-the-week]”; accept “submissions for NBCU’s cable networks of professionally produced and completed MOWs, miniseries or films from qualified independent producers”; and, working through IFTA, “develop a direct business relationship under which independent producers can license their content to Comcast Cable for distribution on new media platforms.”

Comcast-NBCU likely reached out to IFTA to blunt criticism from more “indie” independents, thus the absence of groups like the Independent Feature Project, Sundance Institute, International Documentary Association (IDA) or PBS/Independent Television Service (ITVS). And, like the deal with minority groups, it agreed to a half-dozen points that are, at least on face value, nothing more than window dressing, feel-good pronouncements to lubricate the FCC’s decision making process.

If history is a guide, Comcast’s commitments, like NBC’s previous promises, will likely turn to naught. As Joseph Torres of Free Press reminds us, “when NBC bought Telemundo in 2001, it promised to improve local news coverage. Instead, it cut the local newscasts of Telemundo stations in several cities with large Latino populations like San Antonio, San Jose and Phoenix.”

Comcast’s relations with AZN, an English-language cable channel serving Asian Americans, is a similar testament to its support of minority and independent programming. According to the “Hollywood Reporter,” Comcast acquired the channel from Liberty Media in 2004 and dumped it 2008 because it “didn’t manage to attract enough advertising revenue.”

These actions come in the wake of Comcast’s notorious effort in February 2008 to pack an FCC hearing in Boston with hired goons to occupy all the pubic seats, thus preventing actual citizens from attending let alone speaking.

* * *

American capitalism has come full-cycle since the legendary battles waged by Teddy Roosevelt and other Progressives a century ago against increasing corporate consolidation. Then, they battled the shameless practices of industrial trusts like Standard Oil.

Today, John D. Rockefeller’s corporate descendents continue to dominate the American economy and the trust model has reemerged. This time, unfortunately, there is no TR to do battle for the public good. Instead, Democrats and Republicans shamelessly serve the interests of not only big media, but big oil, big finance and big health-care as well. Their support for consolidation is rationalized as necessary to combat the challenge of globalization and ensure American competitiveness.

The Comcast-NBCU merger will likely be approved. The parties will make promises to minorities, independent producers and the public, some of which have been identified. It would be wonderful if the two companies kept the promises they will likely make; it would signal a new and more responsible era of corporate capitalism. However, looking back from 2020, the genuflecting media, federal administrators and politicians (who will all have been replaced) will have long forgotten these promises. Sadly, like the promises they made earlier with regard to NBC’s Telemudo acquisition and Comcast carriage of the AZN network, these promises will be broken.

"A merger of Comcast and NBC should cause real fear," explained O. Ricardo Pimentel, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. "When an entity that provides major programming joins with the folks who control the pipes through which this content flows, this concentrates too much control in too few hands. Media consolidation has already resulted in too much of this. Let’s not allow more of the same."

Yes, let’s not.

David Rosen is author of "Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films" and can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.

Bruce Kushnick is a telecommunications industry analyst who serves as the broadband and telecommunications expert for Harvard Nieman’s Foundation for Journalism’s "Watchdog"; he can be reached at bruce@newnetworks.com.

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