Flickr Photo by andy_baker7

On July 13th, citizens from Chicago piled into a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) public hearing on the Comcast-NBC Universal merger to weigh in on the merger and give public comments that would become part of the FCC’s legal record for and against the merger. The legal record would be referred to when making a decision on whether to allow Comcast to merge with NBC or not.



The hearing was held at Thorne Auditorium on Northwestern University’s campus in Chicago. It was possibly the only public hearing the FCC will be holding on this merger in the country.



Each person in attendance had an opportunity to sign up and give two minutes of public testimony. About ninety people signed up. Most were from Chicago but some were from California and other parts of the country.



Those giving public testimony voiced their opinion on a media consolidation move that would put production and distribution into the hands of one company. This would make it a vertical merger. The merger would also mean that Comcast would control one in every five television viewing hours and could potentially push its competitors in the industry to raise prices on cable subscribers by charging them more for NBC content.



A person with the League of United Latin-American Citizens (LULAC) testified, "For several years, Comcast has been sponsoring our scholarship program." He explained that Comcast had sponsored community festivals, joined with residents to clean up neighborhoods, and helped plant flowers in the community, and said, "In these tough economic times, it’s hard to find corporate partners."



Comcast joined LULAC’s corporate alliance in 2006. Ironically, this was about the same time that LULAC was supporting FCC hearings in California, New York, and Texas on media diversity and the negative effects of media consolidation and concentration on staffing and programming as a result. In addition to LULAC, the Hispanic Media Coalition, the National Latino Media Council, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Institute of Latino Policy supported the hearings.



LULAC’s endorsement ran a bit contrary to what Green Line’s Ken Wang, someone who had personally testified before Congress on this matter, claimed. He spoke of California and said, "last year [there] was a breakthrough study conducted that measured the impact of local Spanish-language TV news and having that available Spanish markets increased Hispanic voter turnout by about 5 to 10%." He added, "Comcast is about to inherit NBC, which tried to dismantle five of the top ten Hispanic media markets in this country." LULAC did not address how NBC (or General Electric) might influence the way Comcast handled diversity if the merger went through.



A representative from a community college foundation that serves around 42,000 by working to provide scholarships said, "Comcast has been a considerable corporate power and good corporate citizen. I have had the privilege to work with two Comcast employees who have sat on our foundation board." She added that without the support of Comcast, "we would not be able to provide the help that we provide to our students."



Someone from the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council spoke about how their social service agency was benefiting from the help of Comcast and making it possible for them to help residents. Maureen Kelly of the Chamber of Commerce testified and attested to Comcast’s corporate citizenship. A young man from the Boy & Girls Club stood up to tell everyone about how Comcast had bought the club a new computer lab. And, a woman with Little Angels in Elgin, IL spoke of how the "facility for children and young adults with disabilities" was given a digital upgrade to their residents’ televisions and Comcast helped them transition efficiently and swiftly.



The tenor of the public hearing was like this for much of the hearing. Nonprofit organizations supported by Comcast flooded the microphones with talk of corporate citizenry and how Comcast had delivered on promises to them. They made a case for the merger without talking about Comcast the Internet Provider or Comcast the Cable Television Provider, which is what the FCC should be worried about first and foremost as it decides whether to approve of this joint venture or not.



The hearing focused on Comcast’s support for social services until Dr. Lora Chamberlin, a progressive activist with Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), said, "Corporate consolidated media at the present is deficient in progressive voices," and added, "It would only crucify on the cross of consolidation the local news, media unions, media jobs, media access, real media competition, diversity of media ownership, diversity of voices in the media, affordable internet and cable, both in innovation in content, technology and distribution, net neutrality and possibly even drive a stake into the heart of our beloved democracy."



She asked, "Is Comcast a social service agency or a media provider? I have to ask this. It seems like a great community partner but that’s not what we are talking about here. We’re talking about media consolidation."



Dale Lehman, who had done work with WZRE and was wearing a Democracy Now! T-shirt said, "Comcast’s role in this town doesn’t make for democracy or access." And, a resident of Chicago, Nicholas, said, "They spent all this money buying up all this goodwill with the social service agencies. That’s fine. I congratulate them on being successful. But, there’s more to [the merger] than just being a social service agency."



The hearing had to get through a good twenty to thirty people who had likely been charged with the task of pretending to be a citizen without a conflict of interest, without a stake in the future of Comcast, but eventually, there were dedicated media activists sharing very real concerns about what the merger would mean for communications in this country. And, they showed it was irrelevant whether Comcast had served the community well or not.



Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action, an organization with a vibrant history of activism in the city, testified, "Comcast has lobbied against better funding of Chicago public access station, has funded scare campaigns [in opposition] to community Internet referenda in the Chicago area, has tried to defeat network neutrality in the courts and in its Internet traffic policies, [and] has fired labor union organizers."



Steve Macek, an associate professor at North Central College and also someone affiliated with Chicago Media Action, explained that the merger would cost Chicago jobs and "undermine local journalism, limit consumer options, [and] place increased control over Chicago’s media in the hands of a company that is notorious for its abysmally low customer satisfaction ratings and its disregard for workers’ rights."



Macek wondered about the future of his students who are aspiring to become broadcasters and journalists and highlighted the fact that following AOL’s merger with Time Warner in 2000, the combined company laid off some 2,400 employees in the first year alone, which was about 3% of its "pre-merger work force." He reminded the FCC that this was at a time when "the economy was booming and media companies were flush with ad revenues." Comcast, according to Macek, employs 7500 people in the Chicago area so, if it were to trim 3% of its work force, that would mean about 225 workers would be cut. Yet, because Comcast will be taking on debt in order to merge, the cuts, Macek said, would probably be much more severe.



The loss of jobs, the increase in cable and Internet prices to consumers, Comcast’s opposition to net neutrality, and Comcast’s opposition to unions were all highlighted. But, one key issue, in the end, was paramount: What would happen to public access television if the merger was allowed?



Barbara Popovich, Executive Director of Chicago Access Network Television (CAN-TV), one of the largest and most widely used public access televison network in the country, stated, "In Chicago, Comcast has made good in its obligation regarding the public access, but Comcast’s support of public channels has been withdrawn in a growing number of places where government has failed to protect the public."



Popovich suggested that some type of government intervention may be called for especially if, as the Alliance for Communication and Democracy’s filed comments indicate, Comcast’s public interest assertions about the merger may be questionable.



Nick Karl from Kartemquin Films, a film company in Chicago that primarily makes documentary films, explained that he was "speaking on behalf of public access television" and how it had helped him launch a career in documentary filmmaking. He wanted the FCC to not forget the "role of public access channels" as a "vital public sphere for people who want a way to express their voice."



And, Vicki Cervantes, who said she was with a community media producers group, Enlojo, an all-volunteer group that does work in Latino communities in the Pilsen and Little Village areas of Chicago, said she was "very concerned about the protection of public access." She called on the FCC to do more to regulate and enforce regulations on public access so public access could remain protected and she echoed a point made previously.



"We do not believe the role of the FCC is to make decisions based on how generous a company may be to community organizations but on what’s good for democracy and media and democracy in this country, " said Cervantes.



Finally, it may be the proud member of the Chicago chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Greg Davis, who stood up to tell his story at the hearing, that citizens should aim to protect most when deciding whether to support or oppose the merger –




"In 2007, I produced a miniseries on original members of the Tuskegee Airmen that aired on public access channels. I am sure you all are aware of the history and denial faced by all of the original members of the Tuskegee Airmen when they returned to public life. That miniseries, while not perfect in its production, was only possible because we in Chicago had access to public channels that was independent of corporate control. The merger of Comcast and NBC is simply the combining of two mega giants already in the industry. Organizations like the Tuskegee Airmen need a method to broadcast their programs that can only be accomplished with open access to public channels."




The presence of nonprofit organizations indicated that Comcast is doing everything to make sure this merger happens. There really weren’t all that many people at the hearing who weren’t "working for" Comcast, who didn’t have a conflict of interest and stand to possibly benefit from a merger (although merging could mean Comcast has to cut funding to some of these nonprofit organizations).



The reality is that if this merger takes place Comcast will be the dominant Chicago cable provider and Internet provider and will own Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, NBC Chicago and Telemundo and, nationally, it will own at least 42 cable television networks, at least nine international channels, two broadcast networks, a number of digital media properties like, and Universal Studios/Production and Universal Studios Home Entertainment along with all of Univeral’s theme parks and resorts.



The merger will produce a behemoth that will dominate areas of production and distribution in this country. It also could potentially have all the features of a too-big-to-fail corporation, which means American taxpayers could end up supporting the new conglomerate if it takes on too much economic risk as a result of the merger.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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