A much bigger picture

By Dr. Boyce Watkins, BASN Contributor
Updated: January 26, 2011

NEW YORK (BASN) — The recent merger between Comcast Corp. and NBC Universal is considered one the most significant events in the history of modern media.

Comcast is going to buy 51% of NBC Universal from General Electric for $13.8 billion. The merger got the attention of the Justice Department and advocates for black media ownership, who feel that such a massive concentration of power is not good for the industry. The Justice Department reached a settlement with both companies allowing them to proceed with the merger. The FCC voted 4-1 in support of the transaction as well.

The conditions of the merger included, among other things, stipulations mostly designed to ensure that the company can’t undermine competition and prevent other companies from providing video content on the Internet. One of the three Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Copps, said that the merger “confers too much power in one company’s hands.” “This will ultimately mean higher cable and Internet bills, fewer independent voices in the media, and less freedom of choice for all American consumers,” added Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. Comcast has 23 million cable subscribers and roughly 17 million Internet subscribers. They also own some cable channels and a controlling interest in the Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Flyers. NBC Universal owns the NBC and Telemundo networks. They also own some cable channels, a movie studio, a theme park and a 30 percent stake in Hulu.com. While this merger might be celebrated by some, it is incredibly dangerous.

Media is one of the most powerful forces in our society, for it shapes the minds of millions, gets political leaders elected and ultimately changes how the public sees the world. By giving so much power to one company, the federal government may be making a huge mistake. The National Coalition of African American Owned Media expressed concerns about this merger while it was being hashed out, and I agreed with them. Did their pressure on corporate big wigs have an effect? It would appear so. The good news about the merger is that as part of the deal, the new Comcast-NBC has made a rather large commitment to increasing minority access to the airwaves, among other moves towards more media diversity. TheHill.com states in an editorial: Working together with major civil rights organizations in the context of this joint venture, Comcast/NBCU has laid out a plan and commitment to create 10 new independent cable networks (eight of which will primarily serve or be owned by minorities), as well as a $20 million venture to help support new minority media and technology entrepreneurs, the first of its kind from the private sector. The companies also agreed to a host of groundbreaking diversity commitments in employment, supplier relationships, community partnerships and programming. By creating a new Joint Diversity Council that will seek ongoing advice from the leading civil rights organizations on implementing these ideas, these companies are demonstrating an exciting rare and innovative leadership. Still, the African American community may once again find itself struggling for air with an FCC that has been unwilling to take the lack of African American media ownership seriously until it was in the interest of media giants to make a deal. Because, as nice as it sounds on paper, $20 million is not a lot of money to start even one media or technology company, let alone 10 cable networks. Who exactly will be owning and operating these new stations? And why is it that a billion-dollar near monopoly will ultimately be controlling how diversity is implemented in media? This “gift” of diversity was the ultimate token so that Comcast-NBC could make even more money by controlling as much media as possible. Forgive me for being skeptical about the intended follow-through. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but an entire generation was shaped by the disturbing imagery of BET, and most urban radio stations across America provide nothing more than brain-numbing hip hop programming that is completely devoid of any thought provoking or progressive messages.

When our kids turn to other channels, they rarely get to see positive images of themselves, which has led to the epidemic in which nearly every black boy in America wants to be a rapper or basketball player. It is no coincidence that the goals of our children lie in almost complete lockstep with the types of black people who get the most media exposure. Parents can’t always negate the images their kids see on television everyday, which serves to further construct the culture that defines who our kids choose to become (believe me, I know this from trying to get my own kids to realize that dating Lil Wayne is not a good idea). So simply saying mores cable stations will be targeted to blacks is not saying much. That could mean eight more BETs. African Americans must come together to demand that each community be allowed OWN at least two radio stations that cater to the interests and concerns of urban America. We must also have more cable channels and budgets that allow for black-owned programming that consists of more than a consistent flow of hip hop music videos — $20 million clearly isn’t enough. The fact that this deal does not stipulated more dollars and more ownership is disturbing. Most of the media companies (as well as other institutions) in America are owned by people who don’t look like us,and this embarrassing disparity of ownership is all rooted in slavery and Jim Crow, during which African Americans spent 400 years being unable to accumulate wealth or build institutions for our community. The result is that black stars get paid millions to continue cooning, because that is what is entertaining to the majority population — and unfortunately our children follow their lead. Now Comcast-NBC wants to “allow” us to have some stations, some of which we will be “allowed” to own. After 400 years, this is not enough compensation. The federal government is the only entity that can help make this completely right, and the media problem in America is yet another piece of the economic inequality that America continues too refuse to address. While the measures in this deal are better than nothing, they make it more than clear who is really still in total control. It’s time to really do Dr. King’s work and talk about these issues.