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Comcast-NBC Universal hearing offers civics lessons, but not always the right ones

June 9, 2010 | 10:40 am

C-SPAN didn't cover Monday's nearly four-hour House Judiciary Committee "field hearing" on Comcast's proposed deal to take control of NBC Universal. But if it had, viewers accustomed to the network's trademark colorless coverage would have been treated to a Hollywood-worthy drama.

After all, who would expect a gathering of staid Washington lawmakers to feature a congresswoman implying that she had been offered a bribe, another member oblivious to media consolidation, one witness likening a corporate giant to a "plantation," and three attendees arguing about race?

WATERSCHU But this hearing had all that, plus plenty of grandstanding from lawmakers and the witnesses, who both faced cheers and groans from the audience.

Taking center stage at Monday's proceedings was Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). With only five of the committee's 40 members making the trip from the nation's capital to the California Science Center for Monday's hearing, it was easy for Waters to dominate the proceedings. She opened by scolding Comcast and NBC for trying to score points by talking up charitable donations or having others do it for them.

"If there's anybody here today who wants to talk about how much money you've given to the NAACP, the Urban League, to Al Sharpton -- this is not the place to do it," Waters said.

Then Waters dropped her bombshell, suggesting that Comcast wanted to make her an offer she couldn't refuse in return for support of the deal. Waters, who was on her home turf, disclosed with a dramatic flourish, saying she had received a call from "somebody at Comcast asking, 'What do you want?' " Waters said she responded by mentioning the need for diversity in media and that the Comcast person replied, "I'm talking about, 'What do you want?' "

She declined to go into details about the call from Comcast, and the cable operator pointedly denied it had said or even suggested anything of the sort.

Waters wasn't the only one making use of the platform and microphone. Stanley Washington, the chairman and chief executive of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, a newly formed organization that has emerged as a sharp critic of the deal, called for a boycott of Comcast. 

"The time has come where Comcast needs to understand that African Americans are no longer interested in living on the Comcast plantation," he said.

Washington's issue with Comcast: None of the channels it pumps into 25 million homes is 100% owned by African Americans. While Comcast carries TV One, a network aimed at black families, in addition to owning stake in TV One, the channel is nonetheless not 100% owned by African Americans.

Such analysis provoked a rebuke by TV One Chairman Alfred Liggins, who said the relevant factor is that his network is managed by, and programmed for, African Americans.

Will Griffin, head of Hip Hop on Demand, a video channel, found Washington's logic even more perplexing. In testimony, he said Washington's view of "racial purity in public policy almost cost us a chance at American history. Our president is black enough ... and so is TV One, and so is Hip Hop on Demand."

Griffin was one of the more insightful witnesses. He noted that the real struggle for minority media is convincing advertisers that they are as valuable in selling products as the media of the majority.

"If my company was paid for every one of the 500 million potential ad impressions generated, I could have made my own run at NBC," he said.

MADISON Both Comcast and NBC brought several of their minority executives to the hearing and while only one -- Paula Madison, NBC's executive vice president of diversity -- was scheduled to testify, three others ended up making cameos.

Put on the spot repeatedly to talk about diversity on NBC's shows was programming executive Vernon Sanders, who along with Madison was repeatedly pressed by Waters for answers. Sanders also was faced with the awkward task of explaining to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) the double entendre behind the title of NBC's new sitcom "Friends with Benefits." Explained Sanders: "It's about what it sounds like." (OK, maybe it's just coincidence, but on Tuesday NBC promoted Sanders to executive vice president of current programs).

For some, the hearing was educational. Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte) said she was "shocked to read" that five companies own the bulk of the broadcast and cable networks. 

Chu's remark set off a ripple of snickers from media insiders, but the fact is many people do not understand the extent of media consolidation. The media establishment's reflexive response to critics is that today's market is less consolidated than it was 30 years ago, when there were three broadcast networks.

But that is a simplistic view.

There were also hundreds of independently owned local TV stations and newspapers, not to mention thousands of radio stations. In the 1970s, a broadcaster could own only seven television stations. However, those rules were abolished long ago, and now a broadcaster can own as many stations as it wants as long as the stations don't reach more than about 40% of the nation's population. That is where the real consolidation has occurred, along with a handful of media behemoths owning all of the broadcast networks, the most popular cable channels and movie and TV studios.

Perhaps the wisest words of the day came from Cohen, who noted that while diversity is important, the growth of niche channels on cable TV is "doing much to keep us separate."

-- Joe Flint

Photos: Top right: Maxine Waters at Monday's Judiciary Committee hearing. Bottom left: NBC's Paula Madison testifying while NBC and Comcast executives Rick Cotton, Debra Langford and Payne Brown chat and watch. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.

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