Two decades ago, he played a funny character named Stuart Smalley on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Today, he’s a U.S. senator and Al Franken sees nothing to laugh about his former employer’s plan to merge with Comcast.
The Senate Judiciary Committee this week began looking into the announced plan of cable titan Comcast’s plan to merge with the entertainment assets of NBC-Universal. Currently, General Electric owns a majority stake of NBC-Universal. Comcast is nation’s largest cable provider, while NBC-Universal operates the NBC TV network, as well as such cable networks as Syfy, MSNBC and USA Network.
“It matters who runs our media companies,” says Franken (D-Minn.), a member of the committee. “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 produces the programs and runs the pipes that bring us those programs, we have a reason to be nervous.”
Although Comcast and NBC-Universal executives have already offered voluntary concessions to win federal antitrust approval of the deal, “you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t just trust their promises,” says Franken, who as a former writer and player on the long-running SNL, is in a position to know.
The main issue, Franken says, is an arrangement known as Financial Interest and Syndication.
“I was at NBC in the 1990s, when Financial Interest and Syndication rules—more commonly known as Fin-Syn–were relaxed and then essentially eliminated. Until then, Fin-Syn rules had prevented networks from owning more than a very small portion of the programs they aired. This was to prevent an inherent conflict of interest,” he explains. “At that time, NBC executives testified that gutting Fin-Syn would not lead the network to favor its own programming. To the contrary, the NBC President declared, ‘It is in our self-interest to do everything we can to promote a strong independent production community.'”
But by 1992, NBC was the single largest supplier of its own prime-time programming, Franken notes.
“Today, if an independent producer wants to get its show on a network’s schedule, it’s a routine practice for the network to demand at least part ownership of the show. This is completely contrary to what NBC and the other networks said they would do when they were trying to get Fin-Syn rescinded,” says Franken, also a former liberal radio talk show host.
The elimination of Fin-Syn led to a round of media consolidation that led to Disney buying the ABC TV network, and the Paramount movie studio buying CBS.
At issue for the public interest, Franken says, isn’t about whether people are watching an NBC series like Chuck, or who is hosting The Tonight Show.
“The next thing we know, AT&T and Verizon may decide that they also have to buy a Hollywood studio in order to compete. And that would hurt the ability of Minnesotans—and people around the country—to get access to important information and it will make their cable bills go up,” he says.
Franken isn’t alone in expressing worry over this media merger.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Washington watchdog organization Media Access Project, says the proposed deal has implications for American democracy itself.
“At the outset, I want to stress that my opposition to the Comcast/NBCU merger is not based on animus,” Schwartzman says. Comcast CEO “Brian Roberts is not evil; to the contrary, he is a public spirited, ethical businessman. Even though I have problems with his labor/management practices and his corporate governance structure, I recognize that he is motivated by business considerations and not some sort of design to undermine American democracy. But the consequences of this deal nonetheless could have precisely that effect.”
Democracy, he says, relies on a free press and access to information. Specifically, like Franken, Schwartzman worries that approval of the merger would increase Comcast’s power to squeeze out independent programmers with diverse editorial perspectives.
“If Comcast is permitted to purchase the NBC TV stations and its highly viewed cable networks, Comcast will be able to bundle its programming when it seeks carriage deals with other multichannel video programming distributors (‘MVPDs’) such as telephone and satellite companies,” he says. “This enables Comcast to obtain distribution for new and secondary channels which otherwise would never receive such treatment. Each time a Comcast channel is forced into the program menu, there is one less slot for independently owned programming.”