Comcast-NBCU merger bad news for the future of media

By Luke Wilusz

On Jan. 18, the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Justice Department gave their blessings to a deal that could change the face of media as we know it.

The agencies approved a merger between cable and Internet giant Comcast Corp. and entertainment juggernaut NBC Universal Inc., which will create the largest single corporate media entity in the world.

The new company will own all of Comcast’s properties, including the company’s cable and high-speed Internet distribution infrastructure; cable networks such as E!, G4, Style and Comcast SportsNet; and sports franchises and businesses such as Philadelphia’s Flyers NHL franchise, 76ers NBA team, and the city’s Wachovia Center Sports Arena. It will also own all of NBC Universal’s properties, including the NBC television network; 234 NBC affiliate stations; the Spanish-language Telemundo network; cable networks USA, CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo; an ownership stake in online video website Hulu; and Universal Pictures film studios and all related theme parks and resorts.

As part of the FCC’s approval, Comcast made a number of voluntary agreements that it would increase local news coverage, expand children’s programming, offer broadband service to low-income communities at lower monthly rates and provide broadband service to schools and libraries, according to the FCC press release.

The FCC also included a number of conditions in the deal that would theoretically keep this new media colossus from stifling competition by requiring it to make its content and distribution services available to other media production companies at fair prices.

However, none of these good-faith gestures does a single thing to change the fact that the U.S. government has agreed to put far too much power into one company’s hands.

It will own a ludicrous amount of entertainment and news programming on TV and online and the physical methods of distributing that content. Despite the FCC’s stipulations, the Comcast-NBCU joint company could exercise some of its newfound power to hurt competitors and eventually charge higher prices to consumers. After all, cable companies and Internet providers have never been known for prioritizing the needs of their competitors and customers.

The new company could, for example, make efforts to stifle Netflix, which has been an increasingly large source of competition to traditional film and television providers. The company could do this by either denying Netflix its video content or refusing to provide it with the bandwidth necessary for its users to continue streaming videos.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps was the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote to approve the deal. Copps pointed out the deal would hurt the state of journalism in the United States more than help it, despite Comcast’s commitment to increase local news programming.

As fewer massive corporations control more of the news media, the possibility for independent voices to be heard diminishes, and many acts of wrongdoing among large corporations are never made public. These companies are also frequently responsible for many of the budget cuts and staff layoffs that make it more difficult for news organizations to do their jobs. Comcast’s commitment to increase the amount of local news programming will do nothing to improve the quality of said coverage. Copps’ requests the new company allocate more of its resources for news operations were largely ignored.

No company should be as large or powerful as the FCC and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division are allowing this Comcast-NBCU entity to be. When a corporation owns this much content and the means to distribute it, there is no way any business competitors could keep it in check.

Its competitors will become more dependent on this media giant’s content and network infrastructure, while it won’t need anything from them. When the system of supply and demand is out of balance that badly, it doesn’t take long for the top dog to gain a monopolistic stranglehold against entire industries.