Put people first in cable firm merger

Posted Dec. 19, 2010, at 6:24 p.m.

There is a lot of debate about the “message” sent by voters to Washington in the last election. While everyone has their personal opinions, one message that stood out was “put people first.” Americans of all party affiliations are sick of special interests driving our national agenda.

Fortunately, our government has a unique chance to demonstrate that it gets the message. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, is trying to buy NBC-Universal to create the most powerful media company in American history. Before this dangerous deal can be completed, federal regulators have a chance to stand up for the people. They should take the opportunity to do so.

In order to understand why government action is so important, it is necessary to grasp just how powerful post-merger Comcast will be. Take the market here in New England. Already Comcast is the dominant cable and broadband company and one of the largest phone companies. It also owns CSN New England, which has exclusive rights to many Celtics and Revolution games.

After the merger is done, Comcast will add two national broadcast networks, dozens of local broadcast stations, a major film studio and a number of leading Internet properties in addition to key cable channels. To put this in context, Comcast will control one out of every five hours of TV viewed in this country — and an even higher percentage here in New England.

What does that mean for you? Higher bills for one thing. If you are a Comcast customer, expect rates to go up as Comcast is able to use its power to weaken competitors, reducing Comcast’s incentive to keep your rates affordable. And if you’re not a Comcast customer, your rates will go up, too, as Comcast uses its clout to force competitors to spend more to carry NBC stations and its cable networks. One study found the cost to consumers from the merger will top $2 billion in the coming decade.

Moreover, Comcast is willing to prevent competitors from carrying local sports. Right now, in Oregon Comcast is limiting access to Portland Trailblazers games in a manner so abusive it is actually sparking fans to protest. In Philadelphia, Comcast for years has denied access to 76ers, Flyers and Phillies games for non-Comcast subscribers. Imagine a time when our beloved Boston Celtics are blacked out if you won’t pay Comcast’s prices.

Of course, Comcast’s control will go beyond sports to include unprecedented power over news programming. Comcast will have the incentive to promote its own national and local news channels, and, since it controls the cable box in your living room, Comcast will have the ability to shut out or discriminate against other news channels. That is dangerous at a time when we need more diversity of voices in our news media, not less. Indeed, the merger process itself has demonstrated just how important vigilant news media are to our democracy.

Since it announced its intention to buy NBC-Universal, Comcast has gone on a spending binge aimed at influencing policymakers. In the 2009-10 election cycle, Comcast spent more than $22 million lobbying Congress and funding congressional campaigns. The risk of Comcast’s outsized influence on the legislative process was only exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited and undisclosed spending around elections by corporations and unions. The 2010 election cycle showed how corporations are able to exploit that loophole to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into election advertising. Comcast’s lobbying and contribution spree is part and parcel of this same phenomenon of corporations seeking to bend government to their will.

And it is that corporate and special interest power that the American people are rebelling against. The Comcast-NBCU merger is a raw deal, and consumers know it. It puts too much power in the hands of one company. It is bad for our wallets, our TV dial, our Internet and our country. The people are asking policymakers to put the public interest first.

Saying no to the Comcast merger, as proposed, would send a powerful message that Washington finally is hearing us. And in doing so, help protect the kind of competitive, diverse media that our democracy requires.

Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, represents District 121 in the Maine House of Representatives and is the Digital Democracy project director for Common Cause.

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