Comcast-NBCU merger condition for more local news raises questions

As a condition of its approval of the Comcast-NBCU merger Jan. 18, the FCC is requiring NBC and Telemundo O&O TV stations to add thousands of hours of local news and information programming per year.

The requirement, one in an array of conditions that range from setting up an improved arbitration process to resolve disputes involving rival cable companies to prohibition on Comcast’s discriminating in program distribution on the basis of affiliation with Comcast-NBCU, will be in effect for seven years.

The merger, approved by a 4 to 1 commission vote, brings together Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and residential broadband provider, with NBCU, which among its many media holdings includes 10 NBC O&O and 16 Telemundo O&O TV stations.

As part of the requirement to increase local news and information, NBC and Telemundo may not repurpose existing news stories, an FCC spokesman said. Each set of O&Os must produce an additional 1000 hours of new original local news and information programming per year.

The FCC will require NBC and Telemundo to file reports demonstrating compliance with the new local news requirement. An FCC spokesman said that NBC O&Os currently produce approximately 15,000 hours of local news and information programming annually.

Another condition of the merger is that some NBC stations enter into cooperative arrangements with locally focused, nonprofit online news organizations. A total of five such arrangements nationwide are being required. The concept for the arrangements grew out of an existing relationship KNSD-TV, the NBC O&O in San Diego, has with Voice of San Diego, an independent, nonprofit Web source of news and opinion, the FCC spokesman said.

While these steps are intended to further broadcast localism, the commission’s chief champion of localism, Commissioner Michael Copps, cast the sole dissenting vote on the merger. In a statement released on the commission’s website, Copps said, “I see nothing in this deal to address the fundamental damage that has been inflicted by years of outrageous consolidation and newsroom cuts.”

Those comments reference the TV newsroom staffing reductions the industry has experienced in recent years. In 2008, 1200 TV news jobs were lost, and another 400 vanished in 2009, said Bob Papper, chairman of the School of Journalism at Hofstra University in Long Island, NY, and the person responsible for the RTDNA’s annual survey of broadcast newsrooms.

According to Copps, prior to this week’s approval of the merger he had asked for “a major commitment” of resources to “beef up” NBC’s news operations.

“That request was not taken seriously,” he said in the statement. “Increasing the quantity of news by adding hours of programming is no substitute for improving the quality of news by devoting the necessary resources.”

Likewise, Free Press, a media reform advocacy group opposing the merger, sees a difference between quantity and quality of news.

“Quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality, and requiring the stations to produce more hours of coverage is only effective if it results in more diverse voices and real community-based local news,” said Joel Kelsey, political adviser for Free Press.

One of the simplest ways for NBC O&Os to increase local news to meet the new requirement would be to add 30 minutes to morning newscasts, Papper said. To do so, each O&O newsroom probably will need to add two to three people. Compliance for Telemundo might require more people because of the number of Telemundo O&Os currently producing local news, he added.

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.