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FCC asks wrong questions in information request to Comcast

April 14, 2011 |  6:16 pm

If you don't ask the right questions, you won't get the right answers.

Case in point is a recent filing that Comcast Corp., new majority of owner of NBCUniversal, just made to the Federal Communications Commission in response to a request from the regulatory agency.

As part of approving the marriage of Comcast, the nation's largest cable and broadband provider, with NBCUniversal, whose holdings include the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks and cable channels USA, Bravo and CNBC, the FCC wants to know the amount of independent programming carried by all the media outlets of the combined media entity.

Specifically, the FCC requested "the total number of hours of independent programming aired by
each broadcast O&O [meaning a network-owned-and-operated station] and each owned or controlled programming network, the title of each program, the date(s) and time(s) the program was aired, the length of the program, a short description of the program, and for programs aired by the broadcast O&Os, whether the program aired on the O&O’s primary channel or a multicast channel.”

The FCC's motive is to see how much homegrown content is on Comcast and NBCUniversal's various networks as opposed to shows from independent producers. There used to be rules limiting the amount of shows a broadcast network could own, but those have long been gone. Nonetheless, one of the concerns about the creation of such a content behemoth is that independent producers could have a hard time getting their content on Comcast-owned channels.

“In the merger order, the Commission expressed concern about a variety of diversity issues, including viewpoint, program and source diversity," an FCC representative said.

Unfortunately, the information the FCC requested is far too limited to draw any real conclusions about the amount of independent programming on Comcast-owned networks.

For example, Comcast filed eight pages of information on shows that NBC aired that were not owned by the company. All totaled, 228 hours of independent content aired on NBC between Jan. 18 and March 31.

What's not included -- because the FCC didn't ask -- is what percentage of total programming that 228 hours of independently owned content represents. Comcast declined to comment when asked to provide more specific details about its filing.

In sports terms, it's like trying to decide how good a quarterback is by looking at the number of passes he completed without also including the number of passes attempted, how many interceptions were thrown and how often he was sacked.

It is the same story for the rest of NBC and Comcast's networks. Comcast went to great effort to provide every hour of content it doesn't own that ran on its channels, but provided no information that would allow the FCC or the public to put the numbers into context. Without knowing that, the numbers in the cable giant's 817-page filing to the government agency are pretty meaningless.

Company Town did a little math to try to figure out what the FCC really wants to know with regards to NBC. During a typical week, NBC carries 13 hours of programming a day from Monday through Friday and then 15 hours combined from Saturday and Sunday, although the weekend tally does not include sports. That means on average, NBC is programming about 11.4 hours a day. Over 72 days, that comes to about 821 hours, which means about 28% of the network's content comes from independent programming.

To be sure, our numbers are not 100%. NBC's weekend schedule varies from week to week depending on whether it is carrying any sports. Also, we are including NBC's news programming in our calculations of total hours.

Trying to gauge the level of independent programming on NBC's local TV stations and cable networks without additional information is virtually impossible. That's because each individual station and network can have different hours of operation. Many cable networks and TV stations carry infomercials in the wee hours of the morning and those figures should not really be considered in determining the level of independent programming on an outlet. Telling the FCC that Bravo had 204.5 hours of independent programming for those 72 days is of little use without knowing how many hours Bravo was on the air during that time.

Often times, regulators ask for what on the surface appear to be the right questions but in reality are not. In this case, the commission's request has allowed Comcast to declare that it had 26,663.15 hours of independent programming on its 63 broadcast and cable networks and local stations during the 72 days in question.

It sounds impressive, but without knowing how many hours on those stations and networks were created and owned by Comcast, it won't really give the FCC any insight as to whether the media conglomerate is shunning independent producers.

-- Joe Flint