Proposed Comcast Takeover of NBC Universal Will Hurt Diversity, Critics Say

fcc hearingComcast Takeover of NBC Universal Will Hurt Diversity, Critics Say

It was a telling moment. At a public hearing this past Monday, Rep. Maxine Waters, whose district encompasses a predominantly minority area of south Los Angeles, ticked off the names of NBC’s new fall season shows and the number of actors and producers of color on each. The paucity of representation was pretty obvious.

Waters and other members of the House Judiciary Committee held the hearing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles to hear from Hollywood producers, cable executives, academics and others about Comcast’s proposed merger with NBC Universal. Some of the panelists expressed fear that the merger would result in fewer opportunities for minorities in the entertainment business and therefore, fewer outlets to have their stories told. Other panelists, mainly television executives, were supportive of the merger, saying that Comcast has a proven commitment to diverse programming. It was a standing room only crowd inside the center’s Donald P. Loker Conference Center, where lawmakers took testimony from 11 witnesses. Interestingly, although NBCU sent several representatives to the hearing, Comcast sent none. Besides Waters, the lawmakers included her fellow Democrats, Judiciary Chairman John Conyers from Michigan, Rep. Judy Chu of San Gabriel, and Rep. Steve Cohen from Tennessee, and Republican Rep. Louis Gohmert from Texas.

“I think this an historic moment in the economic life of this country,” said Conyers, after commenting on the surge in mergers and takeovers in the last 30 years of rapid deregulation. I don’t know if this is an historic moment. It’ll probably be more like business as usual. I got the feeling that this hearing was more of a dog and pony show than anything meaningful, because I fear this deal is going to go through, no matter what the public thinks. Only the 11 witnesses got to speak and interact with the lawmakers; there was no session for members of the public to comment. One witness, Samuel Kang of the non-profit public policy organization, The Greenlining Insitute, was critical of what he felt was a dearth of public input about the proposed merger. Kang, an opponent of the merger, said that the Federal Communications Commission itself has yet to have a public hearing about the deal. However, Waters said that at the urging of lawmakers, the FCC extended the public comment period for 45 more days.

fcc hearingWaters’ spotlight on the near white-wash of the NBC fall shows was a highlight of Monday’s hearing, which was heavily focused on how the proposed merger may affect diversity within the entertainment business. I realize being in Los Angeles that we’re in the middle of Hollywood, but I still would’ve like to have heard more witnesses touch on how further consolidation could negatively affect newsgathering. Yes, we like our entertainment in L.A., and I’m not happy that a lot of television shows don’t reflect America’s demographics. But there are also a lot of us who are also concerned about how local news stations in this city aren’t serving residents very well, and that this merger may make things worse. Kang spoke about the news a little bit, asserting that media consolidation has resulted in a gutting of local news coverage and staff in several major cities, particularly in Spanish-speaking markets.

Nevertheless, the conversation was eye-opening. Chu stated that the 8-9 PM so-called “family hour” on television is the least ethnically diverse. She added that 40% of primetime series have only Caucasian characters, and that 80% of series are white-themed. This compares with a nation that is roughly one-third minorities, and California that is 53% people of color. The number of minorities behind the camera and in management are pretty dismal. Waters stated that in 2007, minorities owned 3.2% of U.S. television stations and only 7% of full power radio stations. When questioned by Waters, Paula Madison, Executive Vice President for Diversity at NBCU, said there are only seven minority co-executive producers associated with five of the 18 new fall shows. Of all of NBC’s showrunners – a series’ lead producer – none are African-American. Gee, no wonder my viewing habits have begun shifting away from scripted dramas and comedies.

Several participants talked a lot about how many shows with predominantly minority cast members have disappeared over the last decade as consolidation stripped creative control away from once powerful independent producers. Former Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who is currently co-chair of de Passe Jones Entertainment, said consolidation has slowed down opportunities for minority program development.

Maxine Waters

“We have gone backwards,” de Passe said. “The question is why?” She said that unlike in the past, independent producers are now required by mega-media conglomerates to give up ownership and creative control of the shows they pitch. Plus, they’re paid less than they used to be. De Passe added that black executives have never had the power to “greenlight” – give permission to proceed on a project. “We need greenlight power. The power to say ‘yes,’” she said. She said Comcast has the opportunity and resources to change this kind of institutional racism.

Other witnesses rejected the merger plan outright. Stanley Washington, chairman and CEO of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, said that none of the 250+ channels on Comcast’s platform are 100% minority-owned, and called for a boycott of the company. Accusing Comcast of perpetuating a virtual apartheid, Washington said, “African-Americans are no longer interested in living on the Comcast plantation.” Washington verbally jousted with merger supporters Alfred C. Liggins III, President and CEO of Radio One Inc., and Will Griffin, President and COO of Hip Hop On Demand. Griffin defended Comcast by saying that minorities have the best leverage with the company. He added that the reason why shows with predominantly African-American casts have gone away is because advertisers aren’t willing to pay for a lot of slots on black-themed shows. Liggins and Griffin, who are both black, took issue with Washington’s assertion that for a company to be considered “minority-owned,” a person of color must own 100% of said company, rather than simply a majority stake.

Alex Nogales, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Kathryn Galan, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, said they wanted to see Comcast be more proactive in addressing the problem of minority underrepresentation. Calling Comcast’s record on diversity “spotty,” Nogales specifically wanted the merger deal to contain “enforceable conditions” regarding employment, procurement, governance, programming and philanthropy. Madison, the NBCU exec, said that Comcast has a plan in place to improve workforce recruitment, supplier diversity and community investment. She also said she has received letters from 230 organizations in support of the merger. I’d like to know how many of those organizations received money from Comcast.

None of the lawmakers – especially free-market fanatic, Gohmert – expressed overt opposition to Comcast’s proposed takeover of NBCU. But some maintained a large dose of skepticism about the deal, especially Waters, who insisted that the merger not be rushed through without close scrutiny. Watch her speak below:

It remains to be seen whether testimony from opponents will have any sway over the FCC, the Justice Department or Congress. Conyers said there will be more hearings in the future. The question should be whether we want fewer and fewer people running ever bigger companies deciding what we see and hear on our television sets, radios and on the Web. Common sense will tell you that the fewer people making decisions, the more homogenous the output. The new fall shows across the broadcast networks continue to follow the same pattern of medical, cop and legal dramas. Even a lot of cable channels don’t seem to have the unique signature they once had, as more of the programming seem to copy one another. For example, Bravo (owned by NBCU) used to be the classical arts channel, and TLC (owned by Discovery) used to be an educational channel. Both have completely abandoned those original missions in favor of 24-hour reality TV. They should just combine to become The Reality Channel. I thought the new Planet Green channel (owned by Discovery) was supposed to be all about ecological programming, but it includes in its lineup a show about a restaurant that trains former felons in new skills to help them turn their lives around. It’s an inspiring show, but what does it have to do with the environment? Even the History Channel (owned by A&E Television Networks) has shows that have nothing to do with history, like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars.

sylvia moorePeople, including entertainers of color in Hollywood, have a right to be alarmed about this merger. Comcast’s supporters would like us to believe that they are fully committed to diversity, but it’s a business like any other whose primary goal is to make a profit. And the larger the company, the bigger the profit motive. The bigger the profit motive, the more incentive there is to cater to the broadest tastes possible, to downplay what makes human beings different, and to avoid taking risks on the unique and the original. Shows that can get the most amount of eyeballs in order to attract the most amount of advertising dollars usually get the green light. Chasing profits doesn’t bode well for diversity.

You can access the hearing’s full witness list along with links to their written testimony here.

Sylvia Moore

Sylvia Moore is a Los Angeles-area blogger, writer and activist who spent several years as a newspaper reporter in central California. Sylvia has volunteered on behalf of healthcare and media reform. She is a member of and recording secretary for the Culver City Democratic Club, and is a member of and blogger for LA Media Reform, a local group of volunteers dedicated to helping people become citizen mediamakers and critical consumers of corporate mass media. Sylvia is also a volunteer and blogger for California OneCare, a group working to pass a universal, single-payer healthcare system in California.

Reposted with permission from the LA Media Reform.

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Comments

  1. Bob Jacobson says

    The debate as reported once again indicates the separation that is taking place in the media — though not in real life — between race and class. It’s easy for Comcast to claim that its takeover of NBC Universal won’t result in fewer minority programs, if what is meant is hiring producers, directors, and actors who are from minority populations. Whether in fact those minority professionals in turn will produce programming that is an accurate representation of the position of minorities in our society is questionable. It hasn’t been in the past, though sometimes it’s been visionary. Whether the programming so produced is meaningful in terms of the ways it shows characters working out problems or the solutions it provides viewers to problems in the real world is even more problematic.

    The problem, ironically, is that its easy to count black or brown or Asian faces on the screen — big screen, small screen, computer screen, mobile screen — and draw numerical conclusions. That’s important mostly from the standpoint of the minority professionals employed and their elected friends. It may not be at all related to the key issue, does the fare produced by these individuals meet the needs of minority populations in America who are stressed to the max — and who don’t have much to do with Hollywood, except be distracted and misled?

    While it’s undoubtedly true that programming (including now, interactive games and other diversions) produced by minority professionals will overall have more value for minority populations than that produced by non-minorities, the difference could be very slight. The more telling question is, will programming that is progressive and solution-inducing be curtailed by Comcast’s takeover of NBC? To that question, the answer almost certainly is yes. And that will make all the difference, not just for minorities — though they will worst served — but for all of us. Once again, minorities are the canaries in the cave, but we are all miners trapped in it.

  2. Lauren Steiner says

    Excellent article, Sylvia. I was unable to make it to the hearing. So I am pleased to read such comprehensive coverage by you.

    When I started my career in public access cable TV back in 1980, I was alarmed by all the media consolidation that had occurred by that time. We used to talk about public access as being the only place where average citizens and community organizations could have direct first amendment rights using the most powerful medium of persuasion – television. But over the last thirty years, the consolidation of ownership of not only TV stations but TV production companies and radio stations has gotten exponentially worse. And once cable companies no longer needed robust public access operations to win franchises, they reduced their funding or closed them completely. Now they make the case that with the internet, they don’t need public access at all because after all, anyone can start a blog. But with over 30 million web sites out there, these individual voices certainly do not have comparable audiences to those of the satellite and cable channels.

    Yes, I agree with you that the way things are going, this may have been just a dog and pony show, and that the merger will be approved. As we have discussed, it’s hard for the public interest to compete with the special interests and their huge campaign contributions. Perhaps the way to go is to try to revive and enforce some of the regulations that the FCC used to have with regard to minority ownership, the Fairness Doctrine, the Equal Time Rule, a minimum number of hours of news and public affairs and children’s programming, etc. After the financial meltdown and the oil spill, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in regulation. After all, these companies do need FCC licenses, and they are supposed to be operating in the public interest, convenience and necessity.

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