(Left to right) Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep Maxine Waters, Chairman John Conyers, a staff assistant, Rep. Louie Gohmert and Rep. Judy Chu
The Committee on the Judiciary conducted a four-hour hearing to hear from the people the pros and cons about the pending Comcast/NBC-Universal merger
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
It was a field hearing of the Congressional Committee on the Judiciary, which was chaired by Representative John Conyers (MI-14) along with Representatives Judy Chu (CA-32), Steve Cohen (TN-9), Louie Gohmert (TX-1) and Maxine Waters (CA-35).
Its specific purpose was to solicit input from the community and members of the media on the pending merger of Comcast and NBC/Universal. There were 12 witnesses slated to testify and when they were finished, the results seemed equally divided on whether or not the merger should go through.
Chairman Conyers said, “This is a hearing, not a formal discussion. It is a historic moment in the economic life of this country.” He introduced each member of the panel, welcomed the witnesses and the guests. Then each panel member in turned spoke briefly about what each expected to result from the hearing.
Rep. Gohmert mentioned that the DOJ (Department of Justice) review of the merger is in the public interest and is “the main purpose we’re here today.”
Rep. Waters was the host since the hearing was held in her district, in addition, she has been on point in seeing that the pending merger is right for the community, for business and that her constituents will be treated fairly and respectfully. She welcomed the panel, the witnesses and the invited guests to the forum. “DOJ is conducting a labor intensive review,” she said, because the media statistics as they relate to minorities, are frightening. “Our due diligence is to further investigate and understand the implications this massive merger could have on our already heavily-consolidated media market and demand transparency. Comcast is in 39 states.”
Rep. Cohen started off with some light humor about the stars that Tennessee gave to Los Angeles and loaned to the nation, then said, “I’m here to listen and hear what Comcast is doing.”
Rep. Chu stated firmly, “The primary issue is diversity. The lack of diversity in television is not representative of the nation’s changing demographics.” According to her, the panel was interested in how the issue of diversity will be addressed.
The lineup of witnesses consisted of who’s-who in the media and the subject of diversity in the media was front-and-center, as it related primarily to Comcast, the potential purchaser of NBC/Universal, who, if the merger is approved, will be the dominant force in the new company, and in the American media. They included Paul Madison (NBC/Universal); Samuel Kang (Greenlining Institute); Alfred Liggins III, (Radio/TV One); Stanley Washington (National Coalition of African American Media); Jim Weitkamp (Communications Workers of America); Will Griffin (Hip Hop on Demand); Allen Hammond (Santa Clara University School of Law); Alex Nogales (National Hispanic Media Coalition); Kathryn Galan (National Association of Latino Independent Producers); Darnell Hunt (UCLA); Frank Washington (Tower of Babel, LLC); and Suzanne de Passe, (de Passe Jones Entertainment).
As the executive vice president of diversity at NBCU, Madison told the panel of her 21-year relationship at NBC what the impact and benefits of the merger will have on diversity. As an advocate for the merger, she went on to say that Comcast is committed to investing in NBCU to support and enhance both the quality and the quantity of NBCU’s content for consumers to enjoy.
Next was Kang; he was very caustic in his remarks about the merger in general and Comcast in particular. He stated that consumers will be harmed by a merger that creates a media Goliath with too much market control. “If Comcast’s acquisition of NBC is approved, the transaction will create a behemoth that would control content production and content distribution at an unprecedented level.” He followed up citing facts, dates, figures and statistics. After he was through, the audience applauded.
By contrast Liggins welcomed the merger and stated, “There are some critics of the Comcast/NBCU deal who argue that ‘big is bad’ and insist that this combination cannot possibly be good for those concerned about diversity or competition in media.” He blasted the notion that his company is not ‘minority owned’ because of his ratio of ownership, and compared it with the ownership ratios of Fox, Viacom and Microsoft. Ending with, “Based upon my eight-year relationship with Comcast, I can offer a personal testament to Comcast’s commitment to TV diversity.”
It seemed like a seesaw–one for and one against. The next speaker, S. Washington, blasted the merger as inherently bad for African Americans saying, “African Americans are not interested in living on a Comcast plantation.” His statement included, “African Americans media owners are deeply concerned about the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal because this critical merger threatens to entrench the status-quo that keeps African Americans owned cable networks from being able to secure distribution to the Comcast platform. The lack of African American owned media companies in broadcast and cable networks in the U.S., simply put by an FCC commissioner, ‘is a national disgrace.'”
According to Griffin: “Comcast has the best infrastructure of inclusion to build upon in the media industry.” He likened the corporate family structure to the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemming affair, “If it’s in your DNA, you might as well embrace it.”
Many of the remaining speakers including Hammond and Hunt gave data and statistics from their academic research. The final speaker, Suzanne de Passe was the only music executive and film producer present and she stated in some ways, “we’ve gone backwards.” Recalling a comment about her western mini television series, ‘Lonesome Dove,’ one critic said of her, “What is a Black woman doing producing a western.”
After all the speakers were through, Rep. Waters focused on the issue of diversity in the present NBC shows on TV. In addition to Madison whom she questioned directly, there were two other NBC associates there, and together they responded to some of Waters’ poignant questioning.
The direction of the questions were the numbers of producers and regulars on various television shows in a effort to highlight that if diversity is lacking in the present, it would probably escalate in the future. Waters also called on de Passe to buttress her case against some of NBC’s diversity in programming and minority participation in decision-making positions.
Then a parallel was drawn from the recent massive corporations that were too big to fail and the government had to step in to bail them out. When placed against that backdrop, the pending Comcast-NBCU merger becomes economically frightening notwithstanding the other concerns, dispelling the notion: ‘bigger is not always better.’
The Sentinel reached out to Madison to be able to understand more clearly her position as the spokesperson for Comcast-NBCU merger. “The brief issue surrounding the merger has to include the concern about diversity and that is ranging from not just the NBC Universal and Comcast team, but I think that we are seeing that played out as far as Congress is concern, because the questions around diversity in this industry, in this entire profession has been a big concern for many years now,” she said.
“What we’re trying to address is not something specific just about our companies but it’s specific about the entertainment industry. And what we put on the table as our commitment begins to make a dent in a long-standing legacy in this industry,” she continued, “I don’t think you can find any other company that has put more commitments on the table that would advance diversity in the entertainment industry than NBC Universal and Comcast.”
In reference to Rep. Waters intense questioning about lack of diversity in programming, Madison responded, “What you saw was the Congresswoman was going through a list of shows that we had just announced in our Fall lineup. What I learned yesterday is that one of the shows that she asked specifically about, we are still staffing those shows; this is a process that is presently in flux.”
About the absence of Comcast at the hearing, Madison stated that in February, the chairman of Comcast, Brian Roberts, and the CEO of NBC, spent five hours testifying before the full committee. “At that time there were a wide range of questions that was put to them by many members of the full committee. The questions, as far as we were concerned, had largely to do with diversity and with the process of developing our shows.”
Finally, in regards to advertising with the African American media and companies, Madison said that Comcast-NBCU consider that a part of its commitment to improving its overall position on diversity.
Rep. Waters and 68 of her colleagues asked the FCC to conduct public hearings around the country on the merger. The FCC recently announced that it will conduct a public meeting in Chicago in July. Congresswoman Waters considers this a promising start to what she hopes will become a series of public hearings, for which FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps have expressed support.
“The field hearing was important, and the testimony was informative, but many questions still must be answered, especially by Comcast, which chose not to testify,” said Rep. Waters. “That is why additional Congressional and formal FCC public hearings in D.C. and around the country are imperative: American consumers need to have all their questions answered as we prepare for one of the largest media mergers in this country’s history. I want to thank Chairman Conyers for holding this hearing in Los Angeles, and also to thank my colleagues and the panelists for their participation as well. More events like this are necessary so that we all understand the merger’s impact on diversity and consumer costs.”