Consumer Beware
November 2009

by Ron Steinman

After weeks of rumors, a hugely anticipated move in the world of broadcast and cable television has finally taken place. It happened this past week when Comcast bid and won 51 percent of NBC-Universal, currently in the GE stable. Now Comcast will embark on a juicy merger that will change the landscape of television forever because Comcast will now have an ownership stake in a major broadcast network and the many cable companies in NBCU's portfolio.

But we should pause for a few minutes to think through carefully what this means. For me, it surely will do none of us -- the audience and the professionals who provide material for the audience -- any good. I am a cynic, and because of that, I believe the ones who will benefit are those who own the bigger store. In this instance, Comcast, the largest cable operator in the United States with at least 24 million subscribers, just got bigger. Until this moment, Comcast was mostly a distributor. It created hardly anything of value in the world of entertainment, news or public affairs. Keep in mind that more than 60 percent of what NBC owns is cable, making the once proud broadcast network basically a conglomeration of cable networks. That is where the money is. When Comcast succeeds in its bid, it will control the production of television programs, movies and their distribution via cable and broadcast. This is something Comcast has wanted since 2004 when it made a strong bid for Disney that failed. Comcast now will technically be able to charge pretty much any price to the defenseless householder who wants to see its programs, whether reality shows, scripted series or sports. It puts Comcast in the most powerful position of any broadcaster now or ever. Creating, owning and distributing content are Comcast's dreams come true.

Naturally, the dealmakers say they believe the sale of NBCU to Comcast will benefit the viewer. However, it is surprising that some media watchers also believe the viewer will be better off because of the acquisition. I can understand that the bankers love the possibility of the deal, but I cannot understand what is motivating media observers. How can they believe that couch potatoes will gain anything but a headache from the sale? Will Comcast improve programming? I think not, despite the fact that I have no proof to the contrary. Programming costs money. As we know from GE, a failed network – meaning one with low ratings – is a drain on every other part of the business, one of the reasons GE wanted to divest itself of NBCU. Solid, audience-appealing programming is difficult under the best of circumstances. Will Comcast be willing to gamble and spend what, to it, will be big dollars for programs that might not work? Only time will tell, but I will lay odds now that Comcast will not want to sit on the edge of its seat each morning waiting for the overnight ratings.

However, there seems to be undue concern in the media press that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who has been quoted as wanting to build a "powerhouse," may not be able to achieve it by himself. Enter Jeff Zucker. A reminder: he currently heads NBCU and is reportedly one tough cookie, a man willing to cut and slash to make ends meet and secure a profit for his company, no matter who gets hurt. The question before the jury is, will Mr. Roberts retain Mr. Zucker to do his dirty work and help him become the major player he wants to be? However, stick with me, because recent sources are contending that Jeff Zucker and his style of management may not be part of Comcast's plans. What is a future CEO to do? The plot thickens.

As plain folk, meaning people who have no influence over how big companies act, there is nothing we can do to stop the move. Some will say the move is good because we must allow big business to flourish. I wonder, though, why we are not outraged over the possibility of a single, powerful entity positioning itself to control so much of what we view daily. I see buyouts, firings, consolidations, less choice for the viewer, higher costs to the consumer, and a deadening of our – meaning the people's – ability to have more news and information, especially now when we need it more than ever.

Today almost everyone in the business of mass media is struggling to survive. NBC is not immune to the struggle and is still playing catch-up with its new schedule of programs. Its last several seasons have been dismal. Currently it is doing equally poorly with the new Jay Leno Show, and its overall weak schedule is drawing increasingly poor ratings. Big corporations such as Comcast are the sharks that infest the murky waters of mergers and acquisitions. Big guys want to ingest all the other guys in their wake, whatever their size. There are almost no little guys left to devour. Media ownership is as sexy as owning a major sports franchise. Neither guarantees high returns.

When it comes to broadcasting, the consumer is the last thing that anyone considers and the first to suffer. The public cannot stop Comcast's takeover of NBCU. The FCC will, as usual, do nothing. If the money is there, and no doubt, it is, it will be a done deal. GE will have a pocketful of disposable cash and it will finally have divested itself of an albatross around its neck that had been dragging down corporate earnings, and thus profit, for many years.

The deal is not yet complete. It will take many months before regulatory agencies approve it. We can only hope that the consumer is not lost in the shuffle for Comcast's surge as it moves to dominate the world of television.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

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