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Sparks and accusations fly at Comcast - NBC Judiciary Committee hearing

June 7, 2010 |  5:28 pm

WATERS

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) implied that Comcast Corp. wanted to buy her support of the cable giant's proposed $30-billion takeover of NBC Universal.

At a field hearing about the deal held Monday by the House Judiciary Committee at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Waters said she got a call from "somebody at Comcast asking, 'What do you want?' " Waters said she responded by talking about the need to insure a diversity in voices in today's consolidated media landscape and that the Comcast person said, "I'm talking about, 'What do you want?' "

Asked after the hearing for details about her phone call with Comcast, Waters declined to elaborate. “We go no further,” she said. 

A Comcast spokeswoman denied Waters' suggestion that any of the company's conversations with her were improper. "Any implication that anyone ever inquired about what Congresswoman Waters would want personally is completely untrue," said Sena Fitzmaurice. "We meet and discuss the proposed joint venture with many members of Congress and other leaders. We have repeatedly tried to understand Congresswoman Waters' concerns so that we can address them.”

The suggestion of bribery was just one highlight of the at times raucous hearing that ran almost four hours and was constantly interrupted by applause, cheers and groans from the audience.

Although the hearing was chaired by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich), this was Waters' show. She dominated the proceedings, grilling one NBC executive about how many minority producers the network had on its new fall shows and asking Conyers if the Judiciary Committee could subpoena Comcast if it did not provide answers to all its questions. She said many independent writers and producers were afraid to voice concerns about media consolidation in general and this deal in particular because of "fear of blacklisting, or other forms of retaliation within their industries."

Waters set the tone for the hearing in her opening remarks, saying, "Due to the deregulation and federal agencies’ rubber-stamped approval of media mergers, today only five companies own the major broadcast networks; 90% of the top 50 cable networks produce three-quarters of all prime-time programming and control 70% of the prime time television market share." As of 2007, she added, "minorities owned just 3.2% of the U.S. television stations and 7% of the nation’s full-power radio stations, despite comprising more than 34% of the population."

Waters didn't just go after Comcast. Paula Madison, the longtime NBC television executive who is now the company's executive vice president of diversity, was questioned repeatedly by Waters about how many minority producers NBC had on its shows. Although Madison said the network had seven "diverse co-executive producers" on 18 of its sitcoms and comedies, Waters still went through a list of shows making it abundantly clear that NBC had no minority show runners on any of its programs.

Madison got help from two NBC executives that were in the crowd -- casting executive Grace Wu and Vernon Sanders -- on NBC's diversity and that created an amusing moment later when Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked Sanders what the network's new comedy "Friends With Benefits" was about.

"It's about what it sounds like," Sanders said, leading to many guffaws in the room.

There were also some testy moments between the witnesses themselves. Stanley Washington, chief executive of the recently created National Coalition of African American Owned Media (NCAAOM) and an outspoken critic of Comcast, traded barbs with Alfred Liggins, chief executive of TV One, a cable network aimed at African Americans that Comcast owns a stake in, and Will Griffin, chief executive of Hip Hop on Demand, who also offered support for Comcast.

Washington, who called Comcast a plantation and criticized it for not doing enough to support African-American-owned channels and challenged whether TV One could be considered a black-owned network, was criticized by Griffin and Liggins.

"I submit that President Obama is black enough and so is TV One and so is Hip Hop On Demand," Griffin said.

Washington, backing off slightly from the idea that TV One wasn't "black enough," countered that the issue is "Alfred's company isn't independent enough."

A good chunk of the hearing was spent on the fate of the Black Family Channel, a short-lived cable network aimed at African Americans that predated TV One and whose backers included boxer Evander Holyfield, actor and producer Robert Townsend, Marlon Jackson of the Jackson Five and attorney Willie Gary. The NCAAOM's Washington said the Black Family Network was not supported by Comcast. One of the channel's founders, Alvin James, was at the hearing and said afterward that the network had resisted gestures from Comcast to take a stake in the channel. Subsequently, he said, Comcast got into business with TV One, and the Black Family Channel ended up shutting down.

In attendance but not testifying was former Republican Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, who has been doing legal work for both the NCAAOM and Bloomberg LP, the latter of which is worried that its rival CNBC may get a competitive advantage over it by being part of Comcast.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Rep. Waters at Monday's Judiciary Committee hearing on Comcast - NBC deal. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.

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