Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission gave its blessing to the Comcast-NBC Universal deal, one of the largest media mergers in a generation, and we have one man to thank for it.
When Julius Genachowski took the helm of the FCC in 2009, many predicted the chairman would restore confidence in an agency that has for too long placed corporate interests over the public interest.
He had President Obama's ear; he had experience at the agency and in the tech industry; and he pledged to change the way the agency operated. The new FCC chairman seemed to be the right man at the right time to lead this agency.
But the FCC chairman has been anything but. Last month, he pushed through fake Network Neutrality rules that could pave the way for a corporate takeover of the Internet, allowing the giant phone and cable companies to pick winners and losers online.
And now with the Comcast-NBC Universal merger, Chairman Genachowski is ushering a new era of media monopoly.
The New Face of Media Consolidation
The fight against media consolidation historically has been about preventing big companies like Clear Channel and News Corp. from dominating radio and TV markets by owning multiple outlets. But as more people get their news and entertainment on computers and hand-held devices, the fight in the 21st Century has shifted to preventing the giant phone and cable companies from gaining greater control over the programming we watch and the platforms we use to watch them.
With Tuesday's approval, Comcast-NBC Universal will become the most powerful media company in the country.
Comcast is already the nation's largest Cable TV and residential broadband provider, reaching 23 million cable customers and 16.7 million broadband subscribers. But once this merger is completed, Comcast will own 26 local TV stations (NBC and Telemundo); the NBC broadcast network; 17 cable networks (including MSNBC, Bravo, USA, CNBC, the Weather Channel), Universal Pictures, and the online video service Hulu. Overall, the merged company would have a financial stake in 125 media companies, including cable networks, TV stations, Web sites and other properties.
Comcast has spared no expense to get this merger approved. It spent close to $100 million, hired 100 former government employees to lobby on its behalf and made campaign donations to three-fourths of all members of the last Congress.
So what did all that money buy them? The new Comcast-NBC will have the market power and every incentive to favor its own content over its competitors', destroying the emerging online video market and stifling cable competition. This new behemoth will control one out of every five TV viewing hours.
While the FCC placed several conditions on the merger that are beneficial to the public, there's no way to sugarcoat the harmful impact this deal will cause the public by giving Comcast unprecedented power over our media landscape.
And it will only be a matter of time before more companies follow suit. The FCC's blessing of Comcast and NBC will embolden companies like AT&T or Verizon to try to merger with content providers such as Disney or CBS, launching a virtual "arms race" of media consolidation where a handful of companies fight for greater control of the content you watch and all the ways you watch it.
We Deserve Better
It's become clear over the past year that Chairman's Genachowski really isn't interested in using his bully pulpit to publicly debate policies that could serve the public interest. Instead, he would rather cut backroom deals to please industry players, outside of public view.
During the Network Neutrality debate, the chairman had overwhelming support from the public as well as the two Democratic commissioners to pass strong Network Neutrality rules. But he turned his back on the public and instead engaged in backroom negotiations with AT&T that resulted in fake Network Neutrality rules.
The chairman could have opposed the Comcast-NBC Universal merger, preventing the kind of consolidation that Democrats rallied against during the Bush Administration.
After all, during his 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama promised to fight against media consolidation and denounced the deregulatory agenda of the Bush FCC.
"I strongly favor diversity of ownership of outlets and protection against the excessive concentration of power in the hands of any one corporation, interest or small group," he declared. "The ill effects of consolidation today and continued consolidation are well-documented -- less diversity of opinion, less local news coverage, replication of the same stories across multiple outlets, and others. We can do better."
The public had every reason to believe that this FCC, that this chairman, would do better. It's hard to imagine him doing any worse.
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