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Rep. Waters Says Diversity Conditions Should Be Incorporated In Comcast/NBCU Deal

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has suggested something of a distrust-but-verify approach to enforcing the memoranda of understanding Comcast has signed with Asian American, Hispanic and more recently African American groups in an effort to win approval of its deal with NBCU.

In a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowksi, Waters, who has long registered her concerns with the deal's impact on diversity, said many of the proposed conditions "appear to be a series of vague goals and nominal gestures -- lacking specificity and binding authority on the applicants."

While she said the civic organizations that struck the deals -- they included the NAACP and the Urban League -- likely were negotiating in good faith (she did not include Comcast in that list), " absent further action by the commission, I am afraid that these commitments will result in yet another set of broken promises between communities of color and large corporations."

For one thing, Waters wants Comcast to file the MOUs as amendments to their agreement. Comcast has argued that the FCC does not need to make them official conditions and that they are legally binding agreements, but it has not said making them conditions would be a deal-breaker either.

"Because Comcast-NBC negotiated these diversity pledges as stand-alone agreements, there is no real assurance that the merged entity will honor them," said Waters, who characterized Comcast's numerous diversity pledges as a haphazard efforts, and that some of the diversity groups have "conflated" charitable giving and investments with media diversity.

She also threw some existing programming complaints into the mix as arguments that Comcast will not necessarily keep its pledge about adding diverse channels.

"I hardly believe Comcast will abruptly decide to negotiate in good faith with smaller and/or new independent channels, when networks such as the NFL Network, Wealth TV, and the Tennis Channel have had carriage complaints against the company."

Last month, Waters, in another letter to the chairman, asked that the deal not be approved until "all the facts" in the Tennis Channel program carriage complaint had been made public.

Since the trial date of that hearing before an FCC administrative law judge is scheduled for March 29, that would mean many more months of FCC review.
She also complained about what she say as the lack of minorities among the new executive leadership team announced by NBCU COO Stephen Burke, saying "there were no minorities announced to oversee any of Comcast-NBCU's cable, motion picture, or Internet properties."

Waters put in a plug for a proposal to allow broadcasters -- in this case Comcast and the NBCU-owned TV stations -- to sublease multicast channels to unaffiliated, preferably diverse, programmers.

The FCC is widely believed to be targeting the end of this month or early next to circulate a draft decision on the deal, which could conceivably still be voted before year's end if it is the former, though that appears unlikely given the size and importance of the deal.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.