Hundreds of concerned citizens from across the country converged on the Northwestern University Law School in downtown Chicago on July 13 to tell a Federal Communications Commissioner about the problems they predict will occur if cable giant Comcast, media company NBC and GE are allowed to merge.
The effects of the merger would be particularly pronounced in Chicago. Comcast is the city’s dominant cable and Internet provider, and if it acquires NBC, it will also own local TV station WMAQ Channel 5 and Telemundo Chicago.
A coalition of grassroots activists came to the hearing with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Many of those who supported the merger had received support from Comcast, but opponents of the merger also included those who had received help from the cable giant.
Commissioner Copps Take on the Situation
In a Residents’ Journal interview early in the day, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said he was concerned about the state of the nation’s media in general.
“Our failure to recognize the power and centrality of media to our civic life has cost us dearly,” Copps said.
“We are skating perilously close to denying ourselves in this country the news and information and quality civic dialogue that democracy depends on. Will we learn from this history? Or are we doomed to repeat these mistakes again and again?”
Prior to the public comment period, Copps said the merger concerns not only the traditional media, but the new media on the Internet too.
“Do we want the same kinds of sins visited on that new media that have been afflicted on old media?” he asked.
“That’s why I think we have to look very, very carefully at all the different ramifications, and there are so many of them, to this merger.”
Copps said that he hope all of his colleagues will look at records from the public meeting and “take it to heart.
“Because who knows better how media is serving the American people than the American people who receive that media. They are on the receiving end of that media, day in and day out. They know if their interests are being reflected, that the news that they want and need is being provided. They have a feel for it that being locked up inside the Beltway, you can never have.”
The Public Debate about the Merger
During the public comment period, those opposed to the merger shared their views with Federal Communications Commission staff about the adverse effects they think the merger would have on diversity in hiring practices, management and TV programming. Supporters of the proposed merger, meanwhile, talked about Comcast’s current and future charitable works, including social service programs for the poor and needy.
Many of the supporters received financial or in-kind support from Comcast. Several leaders of nonprofit groups in Chicago and across the state who have received donations from Comcast said the company is a role model for kids and should be allowed to buy NBC Universal. They said Comcast was a community partner in full support of their ethnically diverse programs servicing at-risk youth, seniors, those with disabilities, and the homeless.
On the other side, opponents of the merger said it would mean fewer voices and choices for Chicago. Chicago Media Action organizer Mitchell Szczepanczyk said FCC should block the merger because Comcast has lobbied against federal funding of Chicago public access television, funded campaigns to defeat community media referenda in the Chicagoland area, and has tried to defeat network neutrality in the courts and in the its Internet traffic policies. Many of the nonprofit organizations against the merger said their Chicago Cable Access Network (CAN TV) television shows would be in jeopardy if the merger occurred. (Full Disclosure: We The People Media also has a program on CAN TV).
CAN TV Executive Director Barbara Popovich has received support from Comcast, but she echoed many of the concerns voiced by those opposed to the merger. Popovich said that in Chicago, Comcast has made good on its obligations regarding public access. Comcast has been withdrawing support of public channels, however, from a growing number of places where government has failed to protect the public.
“It’s the FCC’s job to act in the public’s interest. We don’t need ombudsmen at the FCC. We need leaders,” declared Popovich.
Samuel S. Kang, managing attorney with the Greenling Institute in California, said his group along with the new media rights group the Coalition for Competition in Media opposes Comcast’s proposed acquisition of NBC-Universal because of the serious threats it poses to consumers, workers and the health of the media market.
A representative from Chicago’s West Side branch of NAACP strongly urged the FCC “to execute its mission” to keep barriers down, foster localism and diversity, and safeguard the public’s access to public, educational and governmental access (PEG) channels, and not allow companies or cities to exclude the public.
“We urge the FCC to stop any existing and new discrimination against PEG channels, including AT&T’s U-verse system. Discrimination is never acceptable,” the woman said on behalf of NAACP.
In a press release, Free Press, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the media, characterized the Comcast-NBC merger as a “disastrous deal” that would hit the city hard.
On the other side, a representative from the independent Christian cable television programmers Total Living Network said their organization believed that Comcast provides multi-platforms for programmers, delivered on their promises, and was “a trusted partner.”
Savanna Swartz, with the Vilinking Club for Kids, an after-school program servicing approximately 726 at-risk youth in Chicago in the Englewood and Austin neighborhoods and in the Cabrini-Green and Altgeld Gardens public housing communities, said Comcast helped their reading program through funding and volunteer mentors.
The FCC will make a decision about the merger in coming months. Commissioner Copps said normally there is a 180-day time period for the FCC to decide on a merger, but additional time will be needed to evaluate the potential deal between Comcast and NBC. He said he expected the FCC would make a decision on whether to approve the merger.
Copps said the public comments will be part of the federal official record, and he hopes that they will be posted up on the FCC’s website.
Copps, who was the sole Commissioner at the public hearing, added that he hope that there would be full FCC Commission hearings with all of his colleagues on the Comcast merger.Tags: Chicago media, Comcast, FCC, merger, NBC