NBC Universal, Comcast pander to civil rights organizations in seeking FCC merger approval

Matthew Boyle | Investigative Reporter

The pending merger between NBC Universal and Comcast appears to have received Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski’s support because of the companies’ recent promises to the NAACP, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the National Urban League and several Hispanic and Asian civil rights organizations. The two media giants promised more “diversity” in new and existing programming, and in all levels of the company and they promised more minority characters in existing television programs and more new programs targeted at the specific racial minorities.

Comcast and NBC Universal promised black leaders four new channels “in which African Americans have a majority or substantial ownership interest,” two of which would be created within two years of the merger. Comcast also promised the black leaders $20 million within six months of the merger closing for a program to expand opportunities for “minority entrepreneurs.”

The media giants also agreed to allow black leaders to have influence over NBC’s news programming.

“NBCU will strive to ensure the presentation of diverse viewpoints by seeking the expanded participation of minorities on its news and public affairs programming,” the companies promised in writing to black leaders. “To advance this goal, NBCU will consider suggestions from the African American Advisory Council of individuals who could be considered for such participation.”

To Hispanic leaders, the companies promised two new channels, one within a year and a half and the other within three years of the merger’s finalization.

“In addition, Comcast Cable is committed to launching a package o f 40-60 Spanish-language channels in all of its major Latino markets, with a balanced mix of programming serving all demographics and strongly promoting a diversity of Latino voices,” the companies promised in writing to Hispanic leaders. “Comcast Cable also will more than double its 600 hours of Latino VOD content, continue to add SAP-enabled offerings, and offer thousands of choices within a few years.”

To Asian leaders, the companies promised a new channel named Cinema Asia America, with 20 hours per day of programming. Comcast and NBC Universal also promised Asian leaders that they’d market the new channel and promote its content for two years.

Comcast and NBC Universal have been trying to merge for more than a year and have hit snags getting the FCC to approve the transaction. Part of the reason why the FCC is being difficult is because the merged company would have more control over media distribution and creation.

Since the self-described civil rights groups announced their support of the merger, though, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced he’s in favor of it as well. In fact, Genachowski came out in favor of the merger within a week of the civil rights groups’ support.

To get the civil rights groups on board with their merger, NBC Universal and Comcast worked out several Memorandums of Understanding, or written agreements, with the different groups, dividing them by race. The separate agreements included an Asian American Memorandum of Understanding, an African American Memorandum of Understanding and a Hispanic American Memorandum of Understanding.

The agreements include promises from NBC Universal and Comcast to create new and enhance existing programming “diversity.” They also include plans to increase minority representation in their employment ranks. Spokespeople from NBC Universal, Comcast and Genachowski’s offices declined to define “diversity” for The Daily Caller and refused to comment on the record as to whether they had set requirements for what counts as diverse programming and what doesn’t.

Republican FCC Commissioner Bob McDowell said there is no clear definition of diversity the commission uses to make these decisions.

“The concept of diversity originated in Congress, but, over the decades, different FCCs have interpreted that differently,” McDowell told TheDC. “Beyond that, there is no dictionary definition of diversity in the FCC context.”

Neither the National Action Network nor the National Urban League returned TheDC’s requests for their definition of diversity, but NAACP spokesman Hilary Shelton said his organization’s definition of diversity is, “when we have representation that is indicative of the racial, ethnic and different genders that are represented in everything that we do.”

Shelton said the merger could go through without the minority groups’ support, but that their support helps in moving the process along and that NBC Universal and Comcast entered the agreements voluntarily.

“The Memorandum of Understanding is not between Comcast and the FCC,” Shelton said in a phone interview. “It is not between Comcast and the U.S. Congress. They don’t have to [have a Memorandum of Understanding]. It’s something they chose to do.”

In addition to programming “diversity,” the Comcast and NBC Universal Memorandums of Understanding with different race-specific civil rights groups promise “diversity” in company employment, in supplier and vendor procurement and in “philanthropy and community investment.”

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