It was a telling moment. At a public hearing this past Monday, Rep. Maxine Waters, whose district encompasses a predominantly minority area of south Los Angeles, ticked off the names of NBC’s new fall season shows and the number of actors and producers of color on each. The paucity of representation was pretty obvious.
Waters and other members of the House Judiciary Committee held the hearing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles to hear from Hollywood producers, cable executives, academics and others about Comcast’s proposed merger with NBC Universal. Some of the panelists expressed fear that the merger would result in fewer opportunities for minorities in the entertainment business and therefore, fewer outlets to have their stories told. Other panelists, mainly television executives, were supportive of the merger, saying that Comcast has a proven commitment to diverse programming. It was a standing room only crowd inside the center’s Donald P. Loker Conference Center, where lawmakers took testimony from 11 witnesses. Interestingly, although NBCU sent several representatives to the hearing, Comcast sent none. Besides Waters, the lawmakers included her fellow Democrats, Judiciary Chairman John Conyers from Michigan, Rep. Judy Chu of San Gabriel, and Rep. Steve Cohen from Tennessee, and Republican Rep. Louis Gohmert from Texas.
“I think this an historic moment in the economic life of this country,” said Conyers, after commenting on the surge in mergers and takeovers in the last 30 years of rapid deregulation. I don’t know if this is an historic moment. It’ll probably be more like business as usual. I got the feeling that this hearing was more of a dog and pony show than anything meaningful, because I fear this deal is going to go through, no matter what the public thinks. Only the 11 witnesses got to speak and interact with the lawmakers; there was no session for members of the public to comment. One witness, Samuel Kang of the non-profit public policy organization, The Greenlining Insitute, was critical of what he felt was a dearth of public input about the proposed merger. Kang, an opponent of the merger, said that the Federal Communications Commission itself has yet to have a public hearing about the deal. However, Waters said that at the urging of lawmakers, the FCC extended the public comment period for 45 more days.
Waters’ spotlight on the near white-wash of the NBC fall shows was a highlight of Monday’s hearing, which was heavily focused on how the proposed merger may affect diversity within the entertainment business. I realize being in Los Angeles that we’re in the middle of Hollywood, but I still would’ve like to have heard more witnesses touch on how further consolidation could negatively affect newsgathering. Yes, we like our entertainment in L.A., and I’m not happy that a lot of television shows don’t reflect America’s demographics. But there are also a lot of us who are also concerned about how local news stations in this city aren’t serving residents very well, and that this merger may make things worse. Kang spoke about the news a little bit, asserting that media consolidation has resulted in a gutting of local news coverage and staff in several major cities, particularly in Spanish-speaking markets.
Nevertheless, the conversation was eye-opening. Chu stated that the 8-9PM so-called “family hour” on television is the least ethnically diverse. She added that 40% of primetime series have only Caucasian characters, and that 80% of series are white-themed. This compares with a nation that is roughly one-third minorities, and California that is 53% people of color. The number of minorities behind the camera and in management are pretty dismal. Waters stated that in 2007, minorities owned 3.2% of U.S. television stations and only 7% of full power radio stations. When questioned by Waters, Paula Madison, Executive Vice President for Diversity at NBCU, said there are only seven minority co-executive producers associated with five of the 18 new fall shows. Of all of NBC’s showrunners – a series’ lead producer – none are African-American. Gee, no wonder my viewing habits have begun shifting away from scripted dramas and comedies.
Several participants talked a lot about how many shows with predominantly minority cast members have disappeared over the last decade as consolidation stripped creative control away from once powerful independent producers. Former Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who is currently co-chair of de Passe Jones Entertainment, said consolidation has slowed down opportunities for minority program development.
“We have gone backwards,” de Passe said. “The question is why?” She said that unlike in the past, independent producers are now required by mega-media conglomerates to give up ownership and creative control of the shows they pitch. Plus, they’re paid less than they used to be. De Passe added that black executives have never had the power to “greenlight” – give permission to proceed on a project. “We need greenlight power. The power to say ‘yes,’” she said. She said Comcast has the opportunity and resources to change this kind of institutional racism.
Other witnesses rejected the merger plan outright. Stanley Washington, chairman and CEO of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, said that none of the 250+ channels on Comcast’s platform are 100% minority-owned, and called for a boycott of the company. Accusing Comcast of perpetuating a virtual apartheid, Washington said, “African-Americans are no longer interested in living on the Comcast plantation.” Washington verbally jousted with merger supporters Alfred C. Liggins III, President and CEO of Radio One Inc., and Will Griffin, President and COO of Hip Hop On Demand. Griffin defended Comcast by saying that minorities have the best leverage with the company. He added that the reason why shows with predominantly African-American casts have gone away is because advertisers aren’t willing to pay for a lot of slots on black-themed shows. Liggins and Griffin, who are both black, took issue with Washington’s assertion that for a company to be considered “minority-owned,” a person of color must own 100% of said company, rather than simply a majority stake.
Alex Nogales, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Kathryn Galan, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, said they wanted to see Comcast be more proactive in addressing the problem of minority underrepresentation. Calling Comcast’s record on diversity “spotty,” Nogales specifically wanted the merger deal to contain “enforceable conditions” regarding employment, procurement, governance, programming and philanthropy. Madison, the NBCU exec, said that Comcast has a plan in place to improve workforce recruitment, supplier diversity and community investment. She also said she has received letters from 230 organizations in support of the merger. I’d like to know how many of those organizations received money from Comcast.
None of the lawmakers – especially free-market fanatic, Gohmert – expressed overt opposition to Comcast’s proposed takeover of NBCU. But some maintained a large dose of skepticism about the deal, especially Waters, who insisted that the merger not be rushed through without close scrutiny. Watch her speak below:
It remains to be seen whether testimony from opponents will have any sway over the FCC, the Justice Department or Congress. Conyers said there will be more hearings in the future. The question should be whether we want fewer and fewer people running ever bigger companies deciding what we see and hear on our television sets, radios and on the Web. Common sense will tell you that the fewer people making decisions, the more homogenous the output. The new fall shows across the broadcast networks continue to follow the same pattern of medical, cop and legal dramas. Even a lot of cable channels don’t seem to have the unique signature they once had, as more of the programming seem to copy one another. For example, Bravo (owned by NBCU) used to be the classical arts channel, and TLC (owned by Discovery) used to be an educational channel. Both have completely abandoned those original missions in favor of 24-hour reality TV. They should just combine to become The Reality Channel. I thought the new Planet Green channel (owned by Discovery) was supposed to be all about ecological programming, but it includes in its lineup a show about a restaurant that trains former felons in new skills to help them turn their lives around. It’s an inspiring show, but what does it have to do with the environment? Even the History Channel (owned by A&E Television Networks) has shows that have nothing to do with history, like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars.
People, including entertainers of color in Hollywood, have a right to be alarmed about this merger. Comcast’s supporters would like us to believe that they are fully committed to diversity, but it’s a business like any other whose primary goal is to make a profit. And the larger the company, the bigger the profit motive. The bigger the profit motive, the more incentive there is to cater to the broadest tastes possible, to downplay what makes human beings different, and to avoid taking risks on the unique and the original. Shows that can get the most amount of eyeballs in order to attract the most amount of advertising dollars usually get the green light. Chasing profits doesn’t bode well for diversity.
You can access the hearing’s full witness list along with links to their written testimony here. To comment on the proposed merger, go to the FCC’s public comments web page. The proceeding number is 10-56: “In the Matter of Application of Comcast Corporation General Electric Company and NBC Universal Inc. for consent to assign license or transfer control of licensees.”