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Will the Comcast-NBC Merger Give You Diarrhea? Ask Liz Lemon!

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February 3rd, 2011

By Guest Blogger Jenn Ettinger

The Comcast-NBC Universal merger was finalized last week, and its impact on our media environment is likely to be grim. Ultimately, this new giant company will control not just vast amounts content, but how people can access that content via broadcast, cable and the Internet. The result will be fewer voices and fewer choices across the board – which historically means the voices and perspectives of women and people of color suffer most.

Media consolidation does more than just “streamline business practices,” as Comcast so optimistically puts it. The Comcast-NBC merger puts total control over production and distribution in the hands of one company. In a not so thinly veiled reference to the real-world merger, NBC’s “30 Rock” recently summarized precisely why this kind of top-down control is troubling:

Liz: What’s vertical integration?

Jack: Imagine that your favorite corn chip manufacturer also owned the number one diarrhea medication.

Liz: That’d be great ’cause then they could put a little sample of the medication in each bag.

Jack: Keep thinking.

Liz: Except then they might be tempted to make the corn chips GIVE you…

Jack: Vertical integration.

Liz: Wow, that should not be allowed to happen.

This satirical episode — which also mocked the network’s lack of diverse programming — was, sadly, one of the only critiques of the merger to appear in corporate media.

The Comcast-NBC merger certainly does nothing on its surface to promote media ownership by women and people of color. And the conditions and commitments attached to the merger by the Federal Communications Commission, which were intended to lessen the damage to competition and the media system, do little to nothing to advance the needs of underserved communities.

The structure of the media, and as a result the content, has historically excluded women and communities of color. With ever-increasing consolidation of licenses to operate stations, barriers to entry are raised; there simply aren’t licenses available, and they’re difficult for an independent owner to obtain.

A 2007 study by Free Press (PDF) found that women, who make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, owned less than 6 percent of television stations. People of color made up approximately 3 percent of station owners despite representing 34 percent of the population. The study also found that after an era of pro-consolidation policies in the late 1990s, minority ownership dropped 40 percent.

The investment required to become a viable player is significant. Most women and people of color only own, if any, a single station in a market, compared to a major media conglomerate with not only several stations in the same market, but nationwide as well. As is, it’s difficult to compete as the owner of a single station in a small market, but now that Comcast, already the dominant cable provider in most markets, will own NBC stations in those same places, it will be nearly impossible.

When communities are not represented in the ownership of media, you can bet they’re not represented in the content. The corporate media’s characterizations and portrayals of women and people of color have great influence over how we view entire groups of people.

Women and communities of color are significantly underrepresented in cable programming. Where are the shows for women? For Latinos? For African Americans? For all of those whose voices are consistently left out of the mainstream media? Flipping through the channels, you’ll find Lifetime, Bravo, Style and E!, among a few others, which are specifically marketed to women. BET, TV One, CiTV and Galavision are marketed to black and Latino audiences. But a few channels on a cable system that prides itself on offering over 250 so-called choices is barely an acknowledgement of the diversity of its audience. And what do those channels really offer that is substantive or informative to those they are supposedly intended to reach? The “Real Housewives of the City Nearest You” might be mildly entertaining, but its value is debatable at best (at worst culturally toxic, as documented in the book Reality Bites Back).

If stereotypical, cheaply-produced shows are the sort of content specifically geared toward us, we’re in for much more of the same now that Comcast owns NBC Universal and all of its cable properties. This “synergy” will allow Comcast to populate its channels with recycled, repurposed content, and will push quality, independent programs and channels to minor, unpopular channels. Part of this problem also stems from the lack of women and people of color as content producers, and the inability for the few who are out there to have their programming reach the major network and cable channels that aren’t relegated to the far reaches of the dial.

In a hearing on the merger last year, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters blasted NBC Universal’s then-President Jeff Zucker for the lack of African American programming.

From the L.A. Times:

“Is there some assumption that black programming is not profitable?” Waters asked Zucker.

“Not at all,” he replied.

Why then, she wondered, are there no shows on NBC aimed specifically at black viewers? She noted that Tyler Perry has created very successful movies and TV shows.

Zucker tried to point out that the network had a history of successful black shows, but Waters wasn’t up for a trip down memory lane.

“That was then and now is now,” she said, adding, “Black viewers deserve the kind of content they feel good about. … I don’t understand why you don’t pursue it and why you don’t do it.”

The Comcast merger, approved with practically a champagne toast from the Federal Communications Commission, is just the first domino, and it has set a frightening precedent for mega-media consolidation. It won’t be long before we see major cable and Internet providers exploring opportunities to expand their own portfolios. AT&T could buy out ABC-Disney, or Verizon could acquire CBS. The space for diverse voices in the media has already diminished, and it will shrink even further unless we stand up. We must demand different perspectives as diverse as the communities we live in. We want choices and we want voices. We must settle for nothing less.

[Editorial Note: To take action, connect with any of these leading media activism and media literacy groups, or get in touch with Free Press, MAG-Net, or Women In Media & News.]

Guest blogger Jenn Ettinger is the media coordinator for Free Press, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to reform the media.

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