The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Time for Comcast to up commitment to NBC, local news

January 21, 2011 |  9:33 pm

ComcastBrianRoberts The Big Pic does not think much of Comcast’s promises to beef up local news and public affairs broadcasting once it takes over NBC, a deal approved this week by the FCC and Justice Department.

In my Saturday column, I discuss the pathetic performance of KNBC in Los Angeles in fulfilling the public service role all broadcasters are supposed to embrace as a duty when they take to the public airwaves.

With its federal approval this week, the cable behemoth Comcast promises to do at least as good a job as NBC (shudder) and to add a total of 1,000 hours of news and public service broadcasting across the 10 stations its owns nationally.

That’s an average of only 16 minutes per day, but even that would be a marked improvement if NBC added real, hard news minutes to its lineup. Past performance suggests the news giant will duck and dive and come up with some sorry infotainment excuses to meet its expanded news commitment.

Another proposal offers at least somewhat more hope for improving the quality of NBC's local coverage. Comcast pledged in December that at least five of its 10 affiliates—in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, San Jose, Dallas, Washington and West Hartford, Conn.—would form partnerships with nonprofit news organizations.

Which affiliates would form partnerships, and the exact terms, have not yet been spelled out. But it's expected that they will be modeled on the relationship between KNSD and Voice of San Diego. The NBC affiliate and the San Diego nonprofit have been working together for five years.

Voice of San Diego Chief Executive Scott Lewis explained that the news outlet, with about a dozen staff members, is now the “primary driver” behind three features on KNSD: "San Diego Explained," "San Diego Fact Check" and "Behind the Scenes," on local arts.

In the Fact Check, now a regular Friday feature on KNSD, Lewis and other Voice of San Diego staffers go on air to rule whether statements by the area's public officials are true or false. As I’ve written previously, is a feisty and promising news operation that's nailed a few big investigative pieces, including take-downs of scandal-ridden redevelopment projects.

Any news station worth its shrinking Nielsen ratings would benefit from the aid of new blood like a Voice of San Diego can provide. In exchange, the nonprofit's work with a TV outlet gets it publicity for the work it's doing, an expanded reach for its stories and some cash.

Under an agreement in the last year, KNSD pays Voice Of San Diego $3,300 a month for its contributions. That amount may not be a game changer, but it's enough for the nonprofit to pay a good part of the cost of one reporting position.

And, hopefully, the outlet will be able to obtain larger payments from the NBC affiliate in the future. Nonprofits like Voice Of San Diego have been one of the bright spots in the shrinking universe of serious mainstream journalism. Their biggest challenge has been scale—not enough revenue from big donors, corporate sponsors and reader-members to sustain newsrooms anywhere near as big as most newspapers, even greatly diminished ones.

Comcast’s commitment to the nonprofit news organizations is an admirable start. But couldn’t the cable behemoth do a little bit better? Its initial promise—bolstering five nonprofits for at least three years--seems paltry.

If the budgets are similar to those in San Diego (and that one took years to get to the commitment of roughly $40,000 a year), the Comcast payment for five partnerships would be just $200,000 a year. That's about equal to the salary for one news anchor in a decent-sized market.

How about a commitment by Comcast to support nonprofit news in all 10 markets that it will get when it acquires NBC? And why not up the ante to give, say, $200,000 to each of those 10 stations? That $2 million would show a real commitment to serious local news coverage and still amount to a tiny rounding error on the enormous investment the company is making in NBC Universal.

Comast would thereby not only show goodwill, but feather its own nest--bolstering the start of up-and-coming news organizations that will help it put better content on the air. In Corporate Medialand, I believe they call that a "win-win."

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. The media giant has committed to increasing local news and public affairs programming when it takes over NBC television outlets. The Big Picture thinks the Comcast boss should do more. Credit: AP / George Widman