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Proposed NBCU/Comcast merger has Black supporters, opponents

A proposed merger between NBC Universal and Comcast has sparked a war of words between the cable giant and an organization that claims to represent Black media owners.
United States Rep. Maxine Waters recently grilled NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker about the network’s lack of diversity and questioned if the new company would do anything to improve diversity at the top.
Speaking in a press release, Waters said she was concerned about the effect consolidation and mergers would have on diversity in the television industry.
“The opportunities for minorities in media have been severely limited as a result of deregulatory policies and large media consolidations,” Waters said. “This has concentrated our media industry into the control of a mere handful of corporations, constraining opportunities for minority ownership of media licenses. While I am not presently opposed to the Comcast-NBC merger, I do recognize it as a critical opportunity for both companies to implement a plan of action to address their shortcomings with respect to minority inclusion within their programming, management, ownership and advertising activities.”
The National Coalition of African American Owned Media (NCAAOM) has filed a petition to block the proposed merger. The group argues that Comcast refuses to carry African American-owned channels, even though the Black community is a heavy consumer of its product.
Los Angeles resident Stanley E. Washington, NCAAOM  president and chief executive officer, says his organization is concerned that the proposed merger could produce a new and extremely powerful entity. Washington said the proposed merger would create a “meganopoly.”
“No other combination of media companies (ATT/Verizon/ABC or Direct/Dish/CBS) would even be half as large,” Washington said. “The Comcast-NBCU merger represents the largest media merger ever with the largest content provider (NBCU) merged with the largest media distributor (Comcast.) The merger represents $30 billion, and will allow Comcast (which has 25 million subscribers nationally or one out of every four cable households in the USA) to own or operate 44 cable channels, 26 broadcast stations, along with their already sizable ownership stake (33 percent) in TV One.”
Washington says that although African Americans spend heavily with Comcast, the cable provider has no African American-owned stations on its system. “As the only African American national organization, which specifically lobbies for African American ownership, we believe that Comcast should be required to allow and support African American ownership on its cable platform,” Washington said.
Comcast argues that the NCAAOM  has its own agenda. According to Congress Daily, NCAAOM was only founded recently, and one of its partners, Kevin Martin, is former FCC chairman. Martin, a Caucasian, regularly battled with Comcast, when he was in charge of the federal agency. According to Congress Daily, Martin is more interested in discrediting Comcast than helping minorities. The Congress Daily article also points out that NCCAOM is a client of Patton Boggs, the law firm that employs Martin and Kristen Wells, NCAAOM’s other partner.
Sena Fitzmaurice, vice president, government communications at Comcast, provided several incidences of evidence to refute many of the NCAAOM’s claims. She said Comcast has received letters of support from the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Association of Black  County Officials, the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women and the National Conference of Black Mayors.
“We have been proud of our support from many people in the African American community,” Fitzmaurice said.  “We worked hard to reach out to state and local officials in metropolitan areas we work in.”
In his letter of support Sharpton said, “Comcast has been an industry leader on diversity, when it comes to their core business operations as evidenced by the leadership positions held by several African Americans in cable and programming operations and elsewhere. Comcast has shown leadership in minority-owned and focused programming starting with the carriage of BET in the 1980s and followed later by its investment in and carriage of TV One, and continuing with its recent launch of Black Cinema on-demand and BET’s ‘Centric.’ “NCAAOM  has accused Comcast of not having any Black-owned cable stations, but Fitzmaurice says this is not true. Comcast carries TV One, a station that provides programming to African Americans aged 25-44. Fitzmaurice says the majority owner of TV One, Alfred Liggins, is an African American, but the NCAAOM insists on channels with 100 percent African American ownership.
In testimony in front of the Committee on the Judiciary, Liggins said that the Comcast leadership team had been extremely supportive of minority issues. Liggins said that eight years ago he approached Comcast about creating an alternative to the programming found on BET, which at the time, was the only Black-themed television network. Although created by African American, Bob Johnson, BET was acquired by Viacom in 2003.
“I began to pitch the idea of a new cable channel that would provide real entertainment and education to the African American community-television that assumed the audience’s intelligence instead of insulting it,” Liggins said. Liggins said he shopped his idea to several cable operators, but Comcast was the only network open to the concept.
“Comcast understood the value and importance of their African American consumers, and quickly agreed to be our strategic partner,” Liggins said. “They gave us significant exposure on their cable systems, which helped to create momentum with their advertisers. They also negotiated a deal that helped finance the network, made a sizable cash investment, while allowing my team to retain significant ownership, even in excess of Comcast’s ownership stake. They ceded management control, and worked with me to allow a competitor, DirectTV, to acquire an interest in the network. And it was with great pride, we launched TV One on Jan. 19, 2004,  the day the nation paid tribute to Martin Luther King.”
Apart from helping found TV One, Comcast has made several other commitments to minority customers. Fitzmaurice also provided a 10-page document outlining Comcast’s diversity efforts. This includes establishing diversity advisory councils, increased minority recruitment, minority internships and scholarships, boot camps geared towards minority executives, a commitment to spend $7 million with minority-owned media and partnering with Black legal organizations.
In addition, Comcast has agreed to commit $20 million to a venture capital fund that will provide opportunities for African American entrepreneurs to develop new media, and provide new programming targeted at African American, Latino and Asian viewers.
Also, as part of the proposed merger with Comcast, NBCU has agreed to sell KHWY-TV, a Los Angeles-based Spanish language station. NBCU says it is committed to selling this station to a minority-controlled ownership group.
NCAAOM says it has tried to engage in direction negotiations with the leadership at Comcast. “Our organization has repeatedly asked to meet directly with Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, and we have repeatedly been told no,” Washington said. “Recently I spoke with Payne Brown, vice president strategic initiatives, (who is African American) regarding our concerns and the need for African American ownership on the Comcast platform. And when I asked Mr. Brown, if we could meet to discuss in detail why the current Comcast concession of 10 minority-owned channels (of which four would be owned by African Americans) and $20 million as a development fund was an unacceptable commitment for a community which represents 40 percent of their subscriber base, I was again told no.”
Fitzmaurice says that Comcast would only agree to meet with Washington, if he revealed who was backing his organization.
Eric Deggans, a media writer for the St. Petersburg Times, says he is skeptical of minority groups who oppose to the merger. “Sometimes these ownership groups have their own business in mind,” Deggans said. “Companies like NBC tend to be jaded about complaints from groups like that.”
Deggans says the biggest problem with the proposed merger is fears that NBC would provide NBC-produced programming to Comcast channels at cheaper rates, and thus undercutting other  networks. However, this might affect Comcast’s revenue, so shareholders might raise concerns about that, Deggans added.
Although NBC is facing complaints from Waters and NCAAOM, about its lack of diversity, the network’s fall lineup has a very diverse roster, with several shows featuring African American actors such as Boris Kudjoe and Blair Underwood. Kudjoe is starring in  “Undercovers,” as part of a married spy team. Underwood plays the president in “The Event,” a conspiracy thriller much in the same vein as “Lost.”
Deggans said that NBC is currently struggling in the ratings, and that maybe the reason why they are willing to take on minority-heavy shows. “NBC has the most diverse new shows, but it’s the lowest-rated network.”
Back in the 1990s, it was a completely different story as NBC, then a top-rated networked, ran “Must See TV,” which featured all-White comedies set in the melting pot of New York, such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” and “Mad About You.” Deggans said this led to an almost de facto segregation in television viewership.
“People in the Black community had never heard of “Seinfeld,” while people in the White community had never heard of ‘Martin,’” Deggans said.
Traditionally, ethnic minorities, such as Blacks and Latinos, have been heavy consumers of television. And in the early days of FOX, the network ran shows with large minority casts, such as “Martin” and “In Living Color,” as it was trying to build its audience. Once FOX established itself as a top-rated network, it moved away from those kinds of shows. FOX now features shows like “Fringe,” which has a White lead actress, Anna Torv. African American actor Lance Reddick is a member of “Fringe’s” supporting cast.
Deggans says that even though there are some Black television stars, it is generally more difficult for shows featuring African American actors to become hits, than shows featuring White leads.
“White people are reluctant to watch shows, that don’t feature White actors,” Deggans said.
Deggans notes some producers like Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy,”  have gotten around this problem by creating large ensemble casts featuring prominent Black actors such as Isaiah Washington. “But the stars are still White,” Deggans said.
The media writer added that although there are big ethnic movie stars such as Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Jimmie Smits, TV has not figured out how to tell their stories.
Deggans predicts that the NBCU-Comcast merger will pass.  (According to the FCC’s 2006 “Quadrennial Review Order,” there are restrictions on the number of television stations, an entity can own in the same market.) He said that the deal may lead to different programming and cheaper rates for Comcast subscribers, unless the Comcast shareholders resist that move.