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Cable Comcast: Al Franken Says Hell No on the NBC Takeover | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Cable Comcast: Al Franken Says Hell No on the NBC Takeover

The "I will mess you up" Senator is what Keith Olbermann is now calling Al Franken. He also added that "orientation" for Minnesota's Senator is now over.

Franken's toughness and savvy was on display last week at a hearing on the proposed $30 billion mega-merger between Comcast and NBC Universal.

In his feisty opening statement, Franken said: "I worked for NBC for many years. And what I know from my previous career has given me reason to be concerned--let me rephrase that, very concerned--about the potential merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. The media are our source of entertainment, but they're also the way we get our information about the world. So when the same company that produces the programs runs the pipes that bring us those programs, we have a reason to be nervous.... You'll have to excuse me if I don't just trust their promises and that is from experience in this business."

The former SNL star and entertainment industry insider-turned-Senator is dead on with his concerns. As Free Press--the media reform advocacy organization founded by The Nation's John Nichols, media scholar Robert McChesney, and current executive director Josh Silver--points out, the merger would result in Comcast controlling one in every five television viewing hours. It would lead to fewer choices of what you can watch and how you can watch it. Those cable bills that continue to rise would rise even higher, and if you don't use Comcast you might have to pay a premium to get NBC's shows. There will be even less access to local and independent programming as Comcast would promote NBC's shows at their expense. And, finally, there's the even larger issue of concentrating power and limiting access to free public interest media.

"Senator Franken is right to be outraged--and the public needs to get outraged, too," Silver told me. "We need to say no to the Comcast takeover of NBC. This would be one of the biggest media mergers ever--and the first to concentrate this much power over not just content but distribution of that content.That's too much power for one company, and it's a threat to competition and independent voices, not to mention the higher prices we'll all be paying every month.

Franken has been careful to be a workhorse, not a show horse Senator. He's kept his history as a comedian and entertainer separate from his work as a legislator. But in the case of the Comcast-NBC merger, Franken speaks with authority and it's important that his voice beheard. Franken can help--along with groups like Free Press and other independent journalists and media--to galvanize the grassroots.

And these are times when we need a grassroots response that fixes hard on the relationship between how we get our information and our democracy--just as we saw in 2003 when a transpartisan alliance of three million citizens petitioned the FCC to halt the repeal of cross-ownership rules restricting how many TV or radio stations, and newspapers, one company could own in one town. That kind of organizing is the only way to counter the Big Telecom lobbyists who are so powerful on Capitol Hill, throwing their money and their weight around. (Comcast spent over $13.4 million lobbying Congress last year.)

We've seen clearly over the last quarter-century the need to be vigilant in fighting for an open and free media. What always brings that home to me is listening to Michael Copps--a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (whose term sadly expires at the end of 2010)--when he makes his twice-a-year visit to The Nation and says, "A lot of people say their number one issue is the war, or healthcare, or education. That's fine, but you'd better make media reform your number two issue, because without number two, you're never going to get to number one." 

As for the impending Comcast-NBC Universal merger Copps points to another danger--that we might see the media consolidation that damaged traditional media being replicated on the internet and harming its democratizing reach.

"This proposed transaction is proof positive that media consolidation has not gone away. I predict we'll see many more media deals once the economy turns the corner," Copps told me. "What makes this deal extra important is that it involves new media as well as traditional media. We need policies to make sure the Internet isn't allowed to travel down the same road that brought so much harm to our broadcast media through rampant consolidation and lack of public interest protections." 

Free Press offers a proven model of citizen action to protect net neutrality and win other critical fights at the local level. Whether your first issue is healthcare, jobs or global warming, now is the time to get involved in another fight that's far more important than just Comcast and NBC--this is a fight over the character of our democracy.

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