CHICAGO - Comcast plans to take over NBC Universal in a $30 billion mega-merger between the two media giants, unless government regulators nix the deal.
The merger is under review by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division.
NBC Universal is owned by another corporate giant, General Electric.
Such a monopoly of content and distribution is a major threat to democracy and the public's interest, consumer and public advocates say.
The potential merger is "really huge," according to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Copps was the only commissioner at a recent FCC public hearing here in Chicago, July 13.
Copps said this merger is "new and novel," not like mergers before it, and will have an indelible imprint on the delivery and content of "new media" for "years to come."
New media is the combining of TV, radio, movies/videos, telephone and Internet through broadband, and delivered to three kinds of screens: television, computer and mobile devices.
Mega mergers have a poor record of performing in the public's interest. Layoffs, higher prices, reduced local control and blocks to racial and gender diversity from ownership to workforce are the social and economic consequences, critics say.
The media industry is already heavily monopolized, with six giant corporations owning as much as 90 percent of everything Americans see, read, listen to and watch.
Media and access to information is basic to the functioning of a democratic society, Copps argued, and the Internet should not become the "province of gatekeepers and toll-gate collectors."
The commissioner asked: will this merger advance diversity and the public interest or just "curry favor with Wall Street marketeers?"
Diversity of ownership has a direct impact on diversity of content, he said.
There is diversity of opinion, content and format, he said, and there is racial and gender diversity as well. "Thirty-four percent of the population is minority, but only 3.15 percent of full power stations are owned by minorities," he said. And for women - who are 51 percent of the population - ownership is 5.8 percent, he said.
Comcast holds a dominant portion of the internet/cable market in Chicago with 2.1 million subscribers and employs 7,500 people in the area.
NBC in Chicago owns two major local TV channels: NBC/Channel 5 and Telemundo/Channel 44.
Merger critics add if the combine goes through it will continue the trend of firing and downsizing news staff.
Media reform advocate Josh Silver of the Free Press told the FCC panel that the merger raised serious societal issues.
Silver said Wall Street and the big banks have threatened our economy, oil corporations have threatened our oceans, and now this mega-merger threatens the viability of democracy.
Silver charged that an approved merger would be a "giveaway to industry titans at the cost of the public."
He called on the FCC to say "No" to the merger and to be the watchdog agency it was set up to be.
Established in 1934, the FCC is charged with regulating communications and use of the public "airwaves."
Silver argued against the Washington beltway "wisdom" that says the merger is a "done deal" that can be "patched up with a few conditions."
Silver said the Comcast-NBCU monopoly clearly "does not" advance the public's interest.
He called out FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski for not coming to the Chicago hearing. With palpable anger, Silver criticized the chairman for "rubbing elbows" with media moguls at a recent conference at a lush resort in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Silver received the only round of applause out of the seven panelists.
Others, including major players, like DISH Network, Google, Bloomberg and Yahoo, spoke against the merger because of the potential of restrictions on non-Comcast and non NBC content.
Speaking on behalf of NetCoalition, a coalition of Internet companies that includes eBay, Yahoo!, Amazon.com, Google, IAC, Wikipedia and Bloomberg, Markham Erickson said non-CNBC financial news (like Yahoo Finance or Bloomberg) would be at a major disadvantage. Competition in financial news is important to small investors, Erickson said. It is more "critical to a guy who trims hedges than a guy who runs hedge funds," he said.
Communication Workers of America warned the merger will be bad for workers, and consumers.
CWA Vice President James Weitkamp told a field hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in June that after Comcast's last big merger with AT&T Broadband in 2002, the corporation immediately set about crushing AT&T's unions. Comcast pays its workers about a third less in wages and benefits than unionized telecom companies.
You can click here to take action on the merger. The FCC is still accepting public comment, and CWA made it easy for everyone to speak out and stand up for workers and the public now.
For more information, go to www.competitioninmedia.org.
Photo: At podium, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps opens the Chicago public hearing on the Comcast NBC merger, July 13.