Apr
01
2014

Cable Monopoly’s Gain Is Community Media’s Loss

Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger threatens local voices

Stop the Merger

Credit: Free Press

In February, Comcast announced its proposal to merge with Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion deal between the top two US cable companies. If approved, this unified media company would control a massive television and Internet market of more than 30 million subscribers across the US’s largest media markets, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. This merger would lead to a single company controlling roughly two-thirds of the cable market, and broadband access for more than one-third of US consumers.

Critics have rightly argued (Bloomberg View, 1/27/14) that if the merger is approved, customers will experience less choice and higher cable bills as a result of increasing media monopolization. What tends to fly under the radar in this debate are further dangers that disproportionately impact underserved communities: the merger’s likely impact on media diversity and community-based media infrastructures, and Comcast’s ongoing attack on organized labor (IBEW, 12/5/13).

Media consolidation has narrowed the already limited access to the airwaves for women and communities of color. Women own less than 7 percent of all TV and radio station licenses despite being half of the US population. People of color make up over 36 percent of the population but own just over 7 percent of radio licenses and 3 percent of TV licenses (Free Press, 9/06). This affects how the issues that we care about—labor, education, housing, immigration, healthcare, the environment—are covered.

We already know that Comcast has a poor record in keeping its promises of media diversity and local programming. In 2011, when Comcast merged with NBC, it expanded its media empire by acquiring Universal Studios, NBC, Telemundo, MSNBC and many other cable networks.

As Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice (Huffington Post, 2/14/14) reminds us:

As a condition of the merger, Comcast/NBC agreed to increase local and Spanish-language news programs for five years and produce an additional 1,000 hours annually of original news programs for a number of its stations. But they didn’t. Instead they fudged their reports to get out of the commitments they made to improve programming in local and Spanish-speaking communities.

Another condition of the Comcast/NBC merger was the promise to help bridge the digital divide through their Internet Essentials program, which was intended to provide an affordable Internet option for low-income families. Instead, the program failed, as Comcast’s pre-conditions and lack of marketing all but ensured the program would never be successful (Technical.ly Philly, 12/21/11).

Since corporate media–backed “state franchising” legislation was introduced in 2005, which strips local communities of their ability to determine their own media needs, hundreds of community access TV centers—also known as Public Educational and Governmental Access (PEG)—have closed in at least 100 communities across the US. According to the 2011 “Analysis of Recent PEG Access Center Closures” prepared by the Alliance for Communications Democracy, half of the 100 communities impacted by station closings were in Comcast markets. Despite Comcast’s claim (2/13/14) that it has “over-delivered on our public interest commitments,” the record speaks for itself.

The loss of PEG stations to Comcast may not be over. Centers like PhillyCAM in Philadelphia, St. Paul Neighborhood Network in Minnesota and many others are slated for franchise renewal with Comcast. These stations provide a vital platform for local and diverse communities to have their voices heard on cable television. This merger would provide Comcast greater leverage to create obstacles in franchising negotiations for community access TV PEG Centers.

Comcast leverages its political muscle in local, state and national politics, disrupting community media and broadband access in cities nationwide through its lobbying and “philanthropy.”  The FCC file on 2011’s Comcast merger with NBC Universal included endorsements for the merger from 54 groups—such as the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League—who received at least $8.6 million in Comcast Foundation donations combined over the previous decade. And of the 97 members of Congress who signed a letter to the FCC supporting that deal, 91 received campaign contributions from Comcast’s PAC or executives (New York Times, 2/20/14).

Comcast is a member and big supporter (PR Watch, 2/13/14) of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing group that represents the interests of big business and conservatives (Extra!, 5/10), lobbying for everything from union-busting “right to work” legislation to the “Stand Your Ground” laws that protected Trayvon Martin’s killer.

Comcast’s own lobbying machine spans the United States, with more than 100 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., alone (OpenSecrets.org). Comcast was the main opponent to the Philadelphia city council legislation that would have given workers earned sick days (Philly.com, 5/1/13).

If approved, this merger would give Comcast tremendous control over our nation’s broadband market—at a time when a recent court ruling striking down net neutrality protections casts doubt over the future of a truly open Internet.

Joe Torres of Free Press (Colorlines, 2/24/14) explains:

While Comcast has to comply with Net Neutrality merger conditions until 2018, the company could start discriminating online once those conditions expire—and can do a lot even before then to mess with your Internet traffic in ways that those rules never addressed. Comcast has been clear that this is its vision for the future of the Internet. This will mean the voices of communities of color and other marginalized groups will have a harder time being heard.

The stakes are high in this merger, extending beyond who you’ll pay your cable bill to each month—and the size of that bill. The future of the Internet, community media, our ability to have our voices reflected in our media system are just as much a part of this deal as the $45 billion price tag.

Sidebar:
Say No to This Merger

While the FCC reviews the merger, now is the time for the public to take action. A myriad of communities, media and social change groups are doing just that. The Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) a national media justice network of over 170 community based groups is opposing the merger—join them at www.mag-net.org.

To contact the FCC, write to:

445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

Or email FCC Chair Tom Wheeler:

Tom.Wheeler@fcc.gov

Betty Yu, a longtime social justice organizer, media activist, educator and filmmaker, is the membership organizer at the Center for Media Justice. She coordinates the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a national movement building alliance of over 170 social justice, community, arts and culture organizations working for media justice.

Extra! April 2014