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Comcast-NBC Merger -- Bad for Latinos?

National Institute for Latino Policy, Commentary, Joseph Torres Posted: Apr 21, 2010

For weeks, Comcast and NBC Universal have been in discussion with several of the nation's largest and most influential Latino civil rights groups on how their proposed merger would benefit the Latino community. Undoubtedly, Comcast and NBC will make promises that sound almost convincing as they urge Latino groups to support the merger. But no matter what they say, it's clear that this deal is terrible for our community. We have already seen how consolidation has eroded the opportunities for Latinos to increase their presence in the media.

The Dangers of Greater Media Consolidation

This deal is problematic because it would give Comcast unprecedented power over all aspects of our media system, including the ability for the public to access their favorite programming on the Internet. But the deal is also problematic because Comcast simply can't be trusted. It has a history of lying to customers and to federal regulators about its deceitful business practices.

Making matters worse, Comcast won a court case earlier this month that stripped the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of its current authority to regulate broadband. That ruling now jeopardizes the commission's ability to implement the National Broadband Plan. If left unchallenged, the decision could prevent the commission from adopting rules to erase the digital divide or protect consumers from online discrimination. Comcast, as well as other big cable and phone companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Verizon, can now legally block the public's access to any website, and there's nothing the FCC can do about it. Its hands are currently tied.(More on this in a moment)

The proposed Comcast-NBC union is perhaps the most consequential media merger in our nation's history. Comcast is already the nation's largest cable company with franchises in 39 states as well as the District of Columbia. And the company is the largest residential broadband provider in the country, counting nearly 1 out of every 4 households as a subscriber.

If the merger is approved, Comcast would own the NBC and Telemundo networks, 26 local TV stations, nearly 20 cable channels, and major movie studios. Media consolidation is a primary reason for the record number of journalists being laid off, including a disproportionate number of journalists of color.

"A merger of Comcast and NBC should cause real fear," explained O. Ricardo Pimentel, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, in announcing his group's opposition to the merger last week. "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."

Today, Latinos own just 1 percent of our nation's full-power TV stations. But the situation is worse on cable. There are few commercial cable networks owned by Latinos that are carried by cable operators. And you'll be hard pressed to find Latino-themed programming on NBC or on cable networks owned by Comcast. Meanwhile, NBC News has few Latino staffers and a history of marginalizing our community in its news coverage.

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. And Comcast has made no promises to change that or to improve news coverage at Telemundo stations.

Extending the FCC Review Process

The consequences of the deal are so far-reaching that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who recently grilled both Comcast and NBC for their lack of diversity at a congressional hearing, introduced a bill last week to force the FCC to give the public more time to comment on the potential impact of this deal. In just two days, more than 56 House members co-sponsored the legislation, including Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill..), Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico).

Last week, under pressure from Congress, the FCC abruptly suspended the public comment period on the merger, citing Comcast's failure to submit two economic studies that address the public benefits of the merger and the impact it will have on the online video market. Pretty important stuff. Whatever the reason for the delay, it gives us important time to evaluate what this merger would mean for Latino communities.

At the very least, Latino leaders should press "pause" on any further negotiations with Comcast until they have had time to review the findings of the economic studies and determine whether this deal would truly benefit or harm the Latino community. And they should also call on the FCC to hold public hearings throughout the country to give our community a chance to weigh in.

Comcast Has Trouble Telling the Truth

Comcast has developed close relationships and provided financial support for many local and national organizations of color. The company sits on the corporate advisory board of the National Council of La Raza, along with AT&T and Verizon, and was the title sponsor of that organization's 2005 convention.

Several local groups representing people of color, like the Tacoma Urban League and Centro de la Familia de Utah, have come down in favor of the merger because of the support they have received from Comcast. The Urban League chapter in Memphis even went as far as stating that Comcast shares its mission to seek the "dissolution of social and economic barriers in our communities."

Comcast should be applauded for supporting organizations of color. But the company's sponsorship of important programs shouldn't be the primary reason to back this massive merger. If the deal is approved, Comcast would have greater control over how our community is covered and portrayed by the news media and entertainment programs.

But Latino leaders should look at the company's past business practices in determining whether Comcast could be trusted to serve the needs of our community. I urge them to look at the company's deceitful business practices and corporate ambitions that have placed the future of an open Internet in jeopardy and have crippled government efforts to close the digital divide.

In 2007, Comcast was caught blocking its customers from using a popular Web application known as BitTorrent to legally exchange large files and videos. This is an application used by entrepreneurs and big businesses, from independent filmmakers to big movie studios, as a faster way to move large files.

But this kind of online activity competes against the cable and online services offered by Comcast. And it's no secret that Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have spent millions lobbying the government to win the legal authority to discriminate online so they can favor their own websites while slowing down sites owned by competitors.

Comcast's blocking practices were discovered by an engineer who was trying to share his favorite Tin Pan Alley music with other enthusiasts. The Associated Press investigated and found Comcast had blocked the news agency from uploading or downloading a version of the King James Bible.
At first, Comcast denied any wrongdoing. And when the FCC held a public hearing about the company's blocking practices at Harvard University, Comcast hired scores of people to fill the seats in the open meeting to crowd out public participation.

Eventually, the FCC forced Comcast to stop its blocking and admit that it had been blocking customers for more than two years. During that time it's possible that Comcast intentionally interfered with the online experience of hundreds, if not thousands, of customers. It's possible that Comcast blocked the use of the popular online application thousands, if not, millions of times. And it's likely that many customers who were blocked were Latino small business owners and content creators.

Comcast got off with a slap on the wrist, avoiding any fines. But the company sued anyway, arguing the FCC didn't have the legal authority to enforce its policy statement. A federal court ruled in Comcast's favor earlier this month.

The ruling strips the FCC of its current authority to protect consumers from discrimination online; right now, it prevents the commission from implementing important parts of its National Broadband Plan, which was praised by many civil rights groups as an important first step toward finally ending the digital divide.

Our Community Should Be Heard

Companies always make promises that consolidation will benefit the public. Too often, these companies pay attention to our community when they need our help to advance their business or legislative agenda. But our community should be wary of unenforceable promises made by companies, particularly when one of those companies is Comcast.

I hope Latino leaders are considering the impact of this deal on the ability of Latinos to own broadcast stations and cable networks. I hope they will consider how the merger will affect cable rates, news coverage of our community, the hiring of more Latino journalists, and the future of the free and open Internet where anybody with a good idea or an innovative business has a chance to find an audience.

And I hope Latino leaders will closely scrutinize Comcast's claims and call on the FCC to give our community a chance to be heard at public hearings throughout the country, because there's still a lot to talk about.

Joseph Torres is the government relations manger for the public interest group Free Press. Prior to joining Free Press, Torres was the deputy director of communications and media policy for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). He can be contacted at jtorres@freepress.net.

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