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Writers Guild worries about news degradation under Comcast-NBC Universal

October 6, 2010 |  1:12 pm

The quality of television news could deteriorate further under a Comcast-controlled NBC Universal, the  Writers Guild of America East warned Wednesday in letters to key Washington officials overseeing the government's review of the proposed merger.

"True investigative reporting has almost vanished completely from commercial on-air news or has often been reduced to sensationalized, trivial coverage of no lasting significance," Michael Winship, president of the guild, and Lowell Peterson, executive director, wrote.  "Instead of a town square where ideas flow freely, the news business becomes more like a shopping mall dominated by a small number of megastores. This thwarts the public's ability to engage in robust, well-informed discussion of the critical issues of our times."

The guild, which represents thousands of writers  in film, television, radio and digital media, sent the letters to Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski; Christine Varney, the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division; and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The consolidation of Comcast's entertainment assets with NBC Universal "would result in a single company producing content and acting as sole distributor of that content -- both on cable and online -- for tens of millions of Americans," Winship and Peterson wrote.

As a remedy, they recommended that Comcast be required to "contribute significant resources to the production of truly independent content."  Funding, they said, should be allocated through the Corp. for Public Broadcasting or "another entity to be established for this purpose." They suggested that Comcast set aside $10 million a year over a 10-year period -- or $100 million -- for funding. 

"It is imperative that this further consolidation of control be counterbalanced by a commitment to broaden the programming available to the public," Winship and Peterson wrote.

Comcast quickly responded, saying it was up to Congress and the "public broadcasting community" to devise funding strategies.

"Comcast has already pledged to make local news and other local programming available to consumers at more times and on more platforms than ever before and to facilitate and encourage the creation of new local programming and to add even more independent networks to our video systems," Sena Fitzmaurice, vice president of government communications for Comcast, said in a statement. "We’ve committed that the NBC owned and operated broadcast stations will produce an additional 1,000 hours per year of local news and information programming for distribution on traditional and new media."

Though the guild's suggestion was "a thoughtful proposal," Fitzmaurice's statement went on, "it ignores the fact that, taken as a whole, the range of public interest commitments already made by the combined companies promises to deliver more diverse programming and more independently produced programming than any entity has ever committed to before."

-- Meg James

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