PIGs Feast at Comcast Merger Trough

by Mike Wendy on February 7, 2011

This article, bylined by me, appeared last Friday in Big Government: Progressives and Free Press at the Comcast Merger Agreement Trough

Though Free Press outwardly expressed condemnation at the approval of the Comcast-NBC Merger earlier this month, they really got a lot of what they bargained for.  After their extensive lobbying blitz – with approximately 35 different FCC communiqués, including over 20 individual meetings with FCC Commissioners and their staff – it’s clear they helped shape many of the agreement’s “voluntary” commitments.

Merger decrees represent a feeding trough of sorts for the public interest group (PIG) community.  Appendix G of the Order reveals the length at which these PIGs sup, stretching nearly 60 pages of the 279 –page Order.

Appendix G wasn’t just slopped together, though.  PIGs are an organized lot.  Witness one such effort – a Free Press-attended, “funding community” event last summer, with participants there brainstorming on what they could demand from Comcast in order for the merger to go through.

Taken from published notes at that meeting, the participants wondered aloud:

“…NBC/Universal is going to merge with Comcast. Can we require rules around this merger? When Comcast and Universal come together, it will diminish the incentives for the owner of that infrastructure to do local news. *What should we be asking for? A $300 million fund to incentivize public media? Trade groups to protect jobs in journalism?* We have to fight now and not look back and wonder what we should have done.”

Boy, PIGs get fat, but hogs become bacon.  Yet that doesn’t stop these gluttons.  I love also the hubris of non-government officials saying, “Can we require rules around this merger…” Er, “We require”?  It shows just how corruptible and voluntary-as-a-mugging the whole process is.  Simply amazing stuff, more akin to Egyptian thuggery than American Democracy.

From the tenor of the discussion, it seems Free Press is perfectly at home with such strong-arm tactics.  In this doozey, notes show participants looking to them to deliver on the $300 million journalist fund:

*”The notion of a $300M public interest fund out of the NBC-Comcast merger is very interesting. Think of California and the $60M that flowed from the mergers there. Free Press is working on this. July 13 is the hearing. Can a public interest fund be created out of the NBC-Comcast merger? California has a specific law that states that 50% of any merger of utilities must go back to the consumer. That law doesn’t exist at the federal level, which makes establishing a fund at a federal level more challenging. [NOTE from GFEM: Commercial media, when launching a single new cable channel venture, operates in $100 million dollar units, committing several units up-front.]”* (Emphasis added)

When the deal was finally “agreed to,” the $300 million journalist fund didn’t materialize, at least not in an obvious sense. But numerous broadcast localism, programming diversity, children’s programming, PEG channel, broadband affordability and other requirements – related and not-so to the purported market power of the new Comcast – engorge the agreement.

One such commitment sits buried deep within the bowels of the Order at page 136.  It has Progressives buzzing with excitement.  States the Order:

“Within 12 months of the Closing of the Transaction, at least half of the NBC O&Os shall have in place cooperative arrangements with locally focused non-profit news organizations that provide reporting on issues of particular concern to each such station’s market and/or region (“Online News Partners”)…

“…These cooperative arrangements shall be similar in approach and level of involvement and support to the arrangement, in place as of the date of adoption of this Order, between NBC O&O station KNSD(TV), San Diego, California, and the website Voice of San Diego, including, as appropriate: story development; sharing of news footage and other content resources; financial support; in-kind contributions; shared use of technical facilities and personnel; on-air opportunities; promotional assistance; and cross-linking/embedding of websites…”

Enthusiastically, anti-Comcast activist Susan Crawford scribbled in her blog:

FCC tries an experiment in supporting local journalism.

Lots of people are worried about the fate of local news coverage.  Rather than requiring NBCU to have particular numbers of journalists on staff, the FCC decided to embrace the Voice of San Diego model…

…It’s fascinating – we’ll see how it pans out.

Fascinating, alright.  Fascinatingly smelly, that is.  Having these arrangements working within 12 months puts the new partnerships into action well in time for the…2012 election cycle.  And, guess where NBC has O&O’s?  In the biggest metropolitan centers of our nation – like WMAQ-TV, Chicago, IL; KXTX-TV, Dallas, TX; KNBC, Los Angeles, CA; WTVJ, Miami, FL; WNBC, New York, NY; WCAU, Philadelphia, PA; and WRC-TV, Washington DC, among others.  All places where it’d b great to shore up young, Progressively-oriented / independent voters.

Replicating this model across a network of stations represents a coup of sorts, a backdoor Fairness Doctrine, combating, with government imprimatur, conservative voices that “flood” the AM radio dial.  You see, the “Voice of Sand Diego Model” is a socially progressive news organization.  Ostensibly designed to supplant failing news operations, such media outlets are typically NPR-styled.  VOSD is so popular among Progressives that it even receives funding from their favorite father, George Soros and his Open Society Foundations.

You think there’ll be a superfluity of stories on the unconstitutionality of ObamaCare?  Or, how Citizens United was the right decision for America and the First Amendment? Or, the reasons why Net Neutrality regulations actually thwart innovation and ubiquity of broadband access?

Tain’t happenin’.  Not on George Soros’ or the FCC’s dime.

Just before the merger was approved, Free Press’ Josh Stearns wrote:

“Comcast’s promise to support local nonprofit journalism organizations looks good at first glance. These new news startups are filling the gaps left by commercial media, and they need more resources.

“But let’s be clear: This gesture is no reason to approve Comcast’s takeover of NBC-Universal…”

That’s right, Josh.  There’re plenty of other reasons if a PIG just sits tight, aggressively lobbies a pliant regulator or three, and has the Chutzpah to “require rules around this merger.”

Now that’s some buffet to sup at (especially with a plate or two of hypocrisy thrown in for good measure).

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