On Dec. 3, 2009, the cable giant Comcast announced plans to buy NBC/Universal from General Electric in a $28 billion merger.
Ever since, lawmakers in Washington and legions of activists have been raising the alarm about the threat such a deal would pose to telecommunication workers, cable and Internet users, and communities of color.
As a result, the Federal Communication Commission, the Justice Department, and two congressional committees have spent months carefully reviewing the proposed merger. The FCC even held a public hearing on the matter in Chicago last month.
Chief among the concerns the FCC must consider is the impact of the merger on workers. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has promised that “there will be no massive layoffs,” even though every big media merger inevitably brings with it steep job cuts. For example, when AOL bought Time-Warner in 2000, the company laid off some 2,400 employees in the space of a year, about 3 percent of its total pre-merger workforce.
What’s more, Comcast has a long history of attempting to break its employees’ unions and firing labor organizers. When Comcast bought AT&T Broadband in 2002, Comcast refused to negotiate a first contract with 16 former AT&T collective bargaining units and forced employees to attend intimidating anti-union meetings. Comcast has also spent lavishly to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act, which aims to strengthen workers’ right to form unions. Unsurprisingly, research shows that Comcast pays its workers 30 percent less in wages and benefits than other, unionized telecom companies.
The FCC must also scrutinize the potential of a combined Comcast/NBC to undermine “network neutrality,” which requires Internet Service Providers to treat all legal Internet content equally. Comcast is America’s leading provider of broadband Internet access and has been caught repeatedly blocking its users’ downloads on peer-to-peer file sharing sites. They even sued the FCC over its right to enforce network neutrality and won in a controversial federal court case.
A Comcast buyout of NBC/Universal would also lead to Comcast control of the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks and 52 cable channels, including MSNBC, Bravo, USA, E!, Style, Versus, and Comcast SportsNet. Having this mother lode of content would give Comcast even greater incentive to discriminate in favor of its own online video offerings and against video available from BitTorrent, YouTube, or Blip.tv.
A Comcast/NBC merger could also be detrimental to communities of color. This very concern was the main topic of a hearing, also held in Chicago, by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet on July 8, 2010. There, complaints abounded about the lack of diversity in Comcast and NBC hiring practices, the companies’ upper-level management and their television programming.
As Rep. Maxine Waters pointed out at the hearing, only two of 28 Comcast executives and only two of 18 NBC Universal executives are people of color. Even worse, of the dozens of cable networks currently owned by Comcast and NBC, only one is headed up by a person of color. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists opposes the merger – which will give Comcast control over the second-largest Spanish language TV network in the county – because they fear it will lead to fewer jobs for Latino broadcast journalists and less coverage of the Latino community.
Comcast and NBC have offered some proposals to address these concerns, but as Stanley E. Washington, president and CEO of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, said previously: “It’s crumbs and they know it is crumbs.” And as Representative Maxine Waters said at the Chicago House Committee hearing: “Neither Comcast nor NBC made any of these (pro-diversity) moves…until all of this began to unfold.”
Then, there’s the bread-and-butter issues about Comcast and cable television in general: higher cable costs, fewer cable channels (especially fewer independent channels), less funds for public access, education, and government cable channels, and ever worsening customer service.
Over the past five years, Comcast has jacked up its cable rates by nearly 50 percent in certain markets and plans to raise rates by 4 percent for some customers again in August. At the same time, the company has long had the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any of the country’s cable and satellite TV providers.
For all of these reasons, the FCC and the Justice Department should reject the proposed merger, which for the public is decidedly not Comcastic.
Steve Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College. Mitchell Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action.