The Ultimate Reality Show

6/28/2010 9:45:33 AM

NBC should make a reality show of its proposed takeover by Comcast. Few contrived situations compare for the drama, particularly at a recent House Judiciary field hearing in Los Angeles where Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) gave those TV executives what for. Waters represents California’s 35th Congressional district, which is around 80 percent Black and Hispanic. She’s angling for more media diversity, and using the Comcast/NBCU proposal as a bully pulpit.

“At the time of the hearing, NBC Universal did not have a single primetime show with a minority show-runner, and that is problematic,” she said. “When we judge the sincerity of these corporations’ commitment to diversity, we look at their leadership and their work product.”

Waters hinted that a Comcast executive tried to buy her support. Comcast denied the implication. And that was that—enough to cast Comcast as the black hat and Waters as the upstanding politician. As if anything in politics is so clear cut.

The prevailing notion is that allowing Comcast to control NBC’s broadcast, cable and production operations will somehow diminish diversity on TV. Yet there is no evidence to the contrary—that smaller media operations provide more diversity. The American Cable Association has 900 members serving 7 million households and businesses. There are no studies that I know of demonstrating that those 900 operations employ and feature more women and minorities than does Comcast. Should the combined entity of Comcast and NBCU be held to diversity requirements to which smaller operations are not subjected? If so, why?

A similar line of thinking—that ownership diversity translates into a greater spectrum of opinions—is at play in Hawaii, where three TV stations are trying to merge newsroom operations. A local media watchdog group is fighting the consolidation. It objects on the grounds that one company will have editorial control over much of the island’s TV news. If the TV stations in Hawaii are like all others in U.S. markets, they all run the same stories anyway.

The effect on diversity is assumed, and possibly contradicted by the latest data from the Radio Television Digital News Association. RTDNA said that while the TV news workforce fell last year—one with an unprecedented number of news operation mergers—the amount of news actually increased to a record five hours a week.

The numbers suggest that properly organized and managed combined operations have more resources to do more stories. The same corollary can be deduced of NBCU under Comcast management. The network perceivably will have the guns to promote programming in which it otherwise could not invest. And like the Hawaii TV stations and every other content provider extant, NBC just wants affordable shows people will watch. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that they don’t care where those shows from or who makes them. “The Merger Ref” has a nice ring.

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