Senator Al Franken, the former media personality who has emerged as one of the savviest analysts of media policy in Washington, got it exactly right when he termed the anticipated merger of Comcast and NBC Universal a "disaster."
Like many critics of the deal the Federal Communications Commission approved by a 4-to-1 vote on January 17 (and that the Justice Department’s anti-trust division OK’d the same day), the Minnesota Democrat focused on immediate concerns about America’s largest cable and Internet company merging with one of the country’s oldest and largest news and entertainment producers. "When the same company owns the content and the pipes that deliver that content, consumers lose," explained the senator. That complaint parallels objections raised by Stop Big Media, a coalition of consumer, labor and community groups that objected to the deal, which studies suggest will cost cable viewers as much as $2.4 billion over the coming decade.
But a second objection voiced by Franken, echoing other critics of the merger, is even more unsettling: "Allowing this merger to proceed could lead to subsequent deals, leaving Americans at the mercy of a few powerful media conglomerates."
This deal, which confident Comcast executives were moving to implement even before receiving the formal approvals, will usher in an era of media conglomeration unprecedented in the history of a country where media ownership is already far too consolidated. The details of this plan are daunting: Comcast is poised to control one in five hours of all TV viewing in the United States; to own more than 125 major cable channels, television stations, websites, film studios and related production facilities; and to dominate local media controlling cable and Internet service and TV stations in major cities across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders overstates nothing when he argues that "this new media giant will be the largest cable provider, the largest Internet provider and one of the largest producers of content in the United States. At a time when a small number of giant media corporations already control what the American people see, hear and read, we do not need another media conglomerate with control over the production and distribution of media content. What we need is less concentration of ownership, more diversity, more local ownership—and more viewpoints."
Small cable providers joined consumer groups to object to the Comcast-NBCU merger, but most major media and telecom firms were conspicuously silent as Comcast (which ranked fourth among corporate contributors to 2010 election campaigns) spent an estimated $100 million lobbying for approval of the deal. Why? Comcast’s competitors know that with the approval of this merger, it is hard to imagine any deal that might be considered too big, too monopolistic or too threatening to democracy. And make no mistake, deals of this sort pose a huge threat to the discourse that is essential to civil society.