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The Issue Is Diversity as Comcast/NBCU Meets L.A.

Seeking approval for its big NBC merger, cable giant’s pledge to add minority voices is soundly dismissed at downtown hearing

It’s not enough.

That was a message emphatically delivered Monday by several members of Congress and numerous minority producers and diversity-minded media-business watchdog groups to Comcast and NBC Universal, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing conducted in downtown Los Angeles.

The four-hour hearing, the first and probably only one to be held in Los Angeles over the proposed Comcast purchase of NBCU, was convened at the California Science Center, at the urging of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who represents the area. 

Its purpose: to explore the issue of ethnic and cultural diversity in the broadcast and cable media — and more specifically, how one of the biggest mergers in media history will improve or worsen that situation.

Earlier Monday morning, Comcast and NBCU unveiled a step up of their commitment on diversity. As one part they said at least half of the six independently owned channels they earlier announced would be added to add to cable systems over the next three years would have substantial minority ownership.

The panel of committee members and witnesses called upon Monday to discuss the diversity records of Comcast and NBC Universal were clearly not impressed.

“It’s crumbs, and they know it,” said Stanley Washington, chairman-CEO of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, one of more than a dozen witnesses called on to speak.

Garnering thunderous applause from the packed room, Washington clearly was playing to the home crowd of African American, Latino and Asian media leaders, who were seizing the moment to have their voices heard.

For the small group of lower-ranking Comcast and NBC Universal officials on hand, it was a long meeting. Conspicuously absent were Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts and NBCU president-CEO Jeff Zucker.

Also not on hand was former Los Angeles Lakers great and noted minority business investor Ervin Magic Johnson, who had earlier publicly expressed his support for the Comcast/NBC merger.

Not that members of the committee – which in addition to Waters, Gohmert and chairman John Conyers (D-MI), also included Tennessee’s Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Judy Chu (D-CA) – didn’t hear testimony from a range of perspectives.

The witness list included several pro-merger voices, such as Paula Madison, executive VP of diversity for NBC Universal; Will Griffin, president and COO of the Comcast co-owned Hip Hop On Demand channel; and Alfred Liggins, president and CEO of Comcast business partner Radio One.

For his part, Griffin argued that mandating that certain Comcast channels be 100 percent minority-owned — something that should be required by the cable company before the merger is approved, according to several witnesses — is unrealistic.

In order to get enough capital to survive and grow, Griffin noted, any channel must tap non-minority sources in the financial markets.

"It’s also advertisers," he said. "They have only been willing to pay for a limited amount of African-American impressions."

But the pro-merger contingent was in the decided minority itself Monday.

Conceding the larger point that minorities are poorly represented in the media business – in terms of everything from on-camera talent to services procurement – this pro contingent’s sentiment was perhaps best exemplified by Madison, who, while being stringently pressed toward the tail end of the meeting by Waters, offered up the following:

“You can pooh-pooh it, but it’s a start.”

Clearly caught off guard by Waters’ testy — sometimes humorous — grilling, Madison faced a barrage of questions regarding the number of minority executive producers currently staffing NBC’s new shows.

“You mean you have two minority lead actors, yet no executive producers of color?” Waters incredulously noted, when advised by Madison of the staffing scenario on the new J.J. Abrams series “Undercovers.”

Later noting that she has received phone calls from high-ranking Comcast representatives offering to make charitable donations to causes near and dear to her, Waters dismissively added, “It’s not about donations to the NAACP. It’s about ownership. It’s about programming."

In fact, Waters even went so far to suggest that the Comcast official offered her a bribe, noting that she was asked, "What do you want." For their part, Comcast officials have denied those claims.

Going even further — to the delight of her local Los Angeles-area constituents — Waters also dismissed what she described as the assertion of one Comcast official, claiming the House committee is "picking" on the cable giant and NBC for a diversity problem that plagues the entire media business.

Her reply: "But you’re the ones asking for permission to merge."

Sitting by Waters’ side, meanwhile, Cohen criticized the efficacy of establishing more niche cable channels. What is needed, he said, is more broad-appeal programming, like “The Cosby Show,” that can expose minority perspectives to a mass audience.

“Part of what cable is doing with the creation of all these channels is segregating us and keeping us all apart,” he said.

The most pointed remarks, however, came from a witness list that included academics, media critics and producers.

Samuel Kang, managing attorney for the Greenlining Institute, noted that only one individual from Comcast’s 13-member board of directors is a minority, and only one is female.

He also pointed to NBCU’s “systematic dismantling of Spanish-language stations” (his terminology for the management changes instituted by NBC after it purchased Telemundo in 2001).

Washington, meanwhile, kicked off his five-minute address this way: “We are no longer interested in living on the Comcast plantation. FCC and [Department of Justice] concessions are clearly needed.”

Later, he would accuse Comcast of using its distribution power to run the independently owned Black Family Channel out of business in order to prop up TV One, the African-American-targetted channel it jointly launched with Radio One.

With Waters indicating that more hearings on the issue of diversity will be conducted before Comcast and NBC Universal receive permission to combine their powerful cable distribution wherewithal with a big content-creation engine, concessions on behalf of the two companies — i.e., more programs that create more opportunites for minorities in programming, operations and outside procurement — could be where it’s all headed.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a member of the committee told TheWrap that the merger enjoys high levels of bipartisan support in Congress, and likely will gain approval eventually.

“I’m not getting the feeling that it’s at all imperiled,” the official said. “It just might get delayed for a little while.”