Roberts-Zucker & Congress Talk Layoffs, Minority Programming

Maxine Waters: “Is there some assumption that black programming is not profitable? … I don’t understand why you don’t do it?”

The Roberts-Zucker tag team wanted to talk the benefits of a Comcast-NBC Universal, but the subject kept coming back to minorities and independent programming.

So it went when NBC Universal president-CEO Jeff Zucker and Comcast chairman-Brian Roberts faced Congress again Thursday, their third appearance in three weeks.

This time they faced the House Judiciary Committee.

And once again, the executives reiterated arguments that the deal would bolster NBCU, bringing needed new investment for over-the-air programming.

Zucker noted that the investment comes at a crucial time — pointing to the heavy cuts this week at ABC News.

“We live in a very different world than we did 20 years ago,” he said. “The last couple of years have been difficult on the broadcasting side. I look at what is happening this week at our peers. I take no pleasure in that. Broadcasting has been under tremendous duress in recent years.”

“Comcast’s commitment to over-the-air broadcasting has been underappreciated,” Zucker told the committee.

For their part, Congressmen expressed concern both about the deal’s impact on independently produced programming and about the availability of minority programming.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., repeatedly questioned the two CEOs about the lack of diversity on Comcast’s board and the lack of African-American programming on NBC’s schedule.

“Many of us are searching for black programming,” she said to Zucker. “Is there some assumption that black programming is not profitable? Tyler Perry does very well. I don’t understand why you don’t do it?”

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, questioned the lack of diversity on Sunday-morning talk shows.

Zucker said he agreed with some of her concerns and said NBC trying to bolster minority programming. But he conceded that the network, which was once a leader in minority programming, hasn’t done as well recently in finding any kind of programming.

“The fact is we have not done a very good job of finding good programming at NBC recently,” he said. “We need to do a better job.”

He also said the network has increased funding for diverse themes but hasn’t found the programming it wants.

“We are attuned it and putting our money where our mouths are,” he said.

Rep. Luis V. Guiterrez, D-Ill., then complained about the portrayal of women on NBCU’s Telemundo programming. If the same portrayal was on NBC, he said, “people would be outraged.”
After the hearing, Zucker told TheWrap that the congressional talk of diversity is a good reminder. “I think all of their opinions are valid and should be heard," he said. “It doesn’t mean you can change every little thing that everybody wants, but you have to respect everybody’s opinion.”
Asked about the concerns raised about African-American programming, he said, "I don’t think it’s programming about any one distinct group. We’re in an era where you want to represent society. Many of our casts represent society. I don’t think any of the networks today have black programs or Hispanic programs or Asian programs. The fact is we represent all of America and I think it’s always good to be reminded of how important that is.”

Also at the hearing, Jean Prewitt, president-CEO of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, warned that the deal would make it more difficult for independent producers to get their product on NBC or Comcast or even on the internet.

“Our experience is that broadcast networks are totally unavailable to independent content, except for reality series,” she said. “Make no mistake, what’s good for Comcast and NBC is not good for the public.”

She warned that the deal would create further barriers to independent content when “channel after channel no longer looks at programming that comes outside the system.”

She said a commitment to providing slots for independent programming should be part of the deal.

Roberts countered by saying that, in fact, Comcast is facing increasing competition for its cable and needs more – not less — content for its video-on-demand.

“We are looking for as many relationships as can get,” he said. “We now have 15,000 shows on video on demand and we would like to have more. We are driven because it is the best competitive shows. So people don’t switch to DirecTV or RCN.”

A fourth congressional hearing has yet to be scheduled, with Senate Commerce Committee.