Have you ever met anyone who tells you that "I'm a big fan of Comcast!" Of course, not. I'm not, either, even though there's no logical alternative where I live than to buy all (sigh) of their services, even something they call "digital voice" and that I stubbornly call "the phone." Nor do I know many fans of big media conglomerates and mergers, generally. So now there's the news that the Philadelphia-based behemoth is buying NBC, a huge breadbasket of cable channels (one or two of which I even watch!) and the Universal Studios -- and while some people around these parts probably enjoy the prestige, most of America doesn't seem to think it's so NBComcastic.
Frankly, there's been a ton of coverage over the last couple of days but none of it really answers the only two things that regular folks here in Philadelphia want to know, which are a) does this mean anything at all for Philadelphia, especially in the way of jobs, because you know we could use some jobs here and b) is there going to be different and hopefully better stuff when I turn on my TV at night?
My sense is that a) the impact on Philadelphia will be next to nothing -- you're not going to suddenly bump into Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels power-lunching at Tony Luke's. It would be nice if Brian Roberts had some thoughts of his neighbors and tried to steal a "Law and Order" or something for a Philly back lot , but it's probably low on his to-do list. As for b), usually the promises of "synergy" and sweeping changes in the way we watch TV or surf the Web never materialize in these things (did the AOL-Time Warner merger change your life?). I'm sure there'll be some things -- it would be good if some fusion between Comcast Sports Net and NBC Sports meant fewer abs infomercials, but I'm not holding my breath.
Meanwhile, people in the left -- yup, my peeps -- are alarmed over what they see as more corporate control over the media. On Daily Kos, for example, some diary writers have convinced themselves that Comcast would be eager to quickly purge Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow from MSNBC, which to these writers would be the end of the world as we know it.
Personally, I'm not thrilled about Comcast owning NBC-Universal but I'm not afraid of it, either. Here's why:
1) When it comes to politics for Comcast, there's no "red states" or "blue states," only the "green state" of its stock price and its balance sheet. The company gives money to and hire lobbyists from both parties -- if anything, you could argue that Comcast's Philly's roots skew the firm slightly Democratic, since its president David L. Cohen rose to prominence as the chief aide and confidant of Gov. Ed Rendell. I don't think they could care less in the board room that Sen. Arlen Specter, switched from (R) to (D) -- as long as he was willing to carry Comcast's water in its jihad against the NFL Network, which he gladly was. To the extent that Brian Roberts & Co. even think about Olbermann or Maddow, it will be what they add to Comcast's bottom line, not the national discourse, and the fact is their shows are killing CNN and compete well with Fox for the 25-49 demographic that advertisers care about. So Keith and Rachel aren't going anywhere.
2) In the perfect world, media conglomeration is pretty awful. Meanwhile, in the real world, Comcast is replacing General Electric -- which is not only one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world but a major cog in the military industrial complex. GE is a company with a lot more irons in the fire than Comcast had, and frankly these are more important ones, at least if you consider building billion-dollar weapons systems more important than whether you have to pay for Thursday Night Football.
Should you worry about Comcast meddling with editorial decisions at MSNBC, CNBC (where perhaps some meddling is in order) or NBC News? A little, but do you think Comcast will do anything worse than this:
Even more insidious, Gore noted, was the fact that outspoken Republican Jack Welch, then CEO of NBC’s parent company GE, was in the network’s election HQ, hovering over NBC’s chief election analyst Dr. Sheldon Gawiser. According to an investigation by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA.), witnesses at NBC reported that immediately after Fox became the first network to call the election for Bush, Welch "was observed standing behind Dr. Gawiser with a hand on his shoulder, asking why NBC was not also calling the election for Bush.”
Or what Jessica Yellin, who's now at CNN but worked for GE-owned MSNBC during the Iraq War, said happened there:
"The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings," Yellin said.
"And my own experience at the White House was that the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives--and I was not at this network at the time--but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president, I think over time...."
Or what former Gov. Jesse Ventura reported about his ill-fated MSNBC gig during that time:
Ventura, who has been doing the media rounds promoting his new venture on TruTV, told the paper that MSNBC canceled his show "Jesse Ventura's America" in 2003 because he did not support the Iraq War. He said the network "in essence" paid him to be silent, which allowed him to purchase a house in Mexico.
Sadly, I could post links like this all morning -- the cancellation of Phil Donahue, who had the network's highest-rated prime time show back in 2003, because of his liberal perspective; the ongoing association between NBC News and Gen. Barry McCaffery as an analyst despite his ties to a defense contractor and a coordinated Pentagon propaganda effort, the awkward (and thankfully unsuccessful) efforts at a muzzling pact between GE and News Corp. because free speech was threatening their profits.
So when you wonder if you should be afraid of Comcast, maybe the real question is whether they could be any worse masters than General Electric.
Because I don't think they can.