|Writers Guild Urges Caution on Comcast-NBC Universal Deal
The Media Superpower Could Squash Competition and Hurt Consumers
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) President John Wells warned Congress today of the potential dangers of the proposed merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable television operator, and NBC Universal, the media conglomerate that controls news and entertainment, broadcast and cable networks, television stations, Universal Pictures, online video services including Hulu and NBC.com, and theme parks. The writer-producer of ER, The West Wing, and Southland testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV.
Voicing concern over the enormous influence that the merged media giant would have over the production and distribution of entertainment and news in both traditional and new media markets, Wells told the senators that, “Control of both content and distribution provides ample opportunity for abuses of power in the pursuit of corporate self-interest. In this case, we are concerned that bigger won’t be better.”
The potential harm to consumers and content creators is most significant in the developing online video market. Comcast’s Xfinity service is an attempt by the company to leverage its dominance of the cable market to control online video. The acquisition of NBC Universal content will strengthen Comcast’s ability to influence the direction of this growing market. It could stifle competition between online video providers and strengthen the company’s market control of video distribution by requiring a consumer to have a costly cable subscription to access online video.
“Comcast control over NBC Universal content will only enhance these anti-competitive efforts. The WGAW has serious concerns about Comcast – NBC Universal serving as the gatekeeper for video content online,” Wells said to the committee.
Writers view the merger as symptomatic of the concentration of media ownership into a disturbingly small number of multinational corporations. Over the past few decades, the entertainment industry has become significantly more consolidated as dozens of independent entrepreneurs and suppliers, including many writer-owners creating innovative and ground-breaking programming, have given way to a handful of large media conglomerates that control both the production of content and a significant part of distribution. The proposed Comcast/NBC-Universal merger takes vertical integration of production and distribution to a new level. Since the repeal of the financial and syndication (Fin/Syn) rules, the percentage of independently produced television programming appearing on network television has plummeted from 78% to 16%.
“The demise of independent production has not been good for writers, who face fewer creative and economic opportunities, and in turn has had a negative effect on job creation for other entertainment industry workers,” said Wells. “Viewers are offered increasingly homogenized content driven by corporate decision-making and at higher and higher costs to the consumer.”
Wells also pointed to several other areas of major concern, including the impact of this merger on diverse news sources, Comcast’s troubling history of labor relations, and the potential for infringement on net neutrality. Wells commented, “As creators of intellectual property, writers believe in strong copyright protection and believe that piracy must be addressed through a combination of new technology and a strong enforcement regime; but we also believe that this can and must be done without sacrificing a free Internet.”
In his testimony, Wells called on regulators to impose additional binding requirements that go beyond the voluntary measures offered by Comcast. In order to promote the competition, independence, and diversity promised by Comcast and NBC Universal, it is critical that the merged entity be required to allocate 25% of primetime programming on its broadcast and cable networks to independent programming. The definition of independent programming must be crafted in a manner that ensures maximum diversity of voices and artists on such programming, and does not simply provide additional programming space for a few other media conglomerates.
In the online space, regulators must require Comcast-NBC Universal to agree to network neutrality rules on its Internet access service to prevent discrimination in favor of or against content on the Internet. The merged entity should not be allowed to use its market power to deny the right to distribute content on platforms that might compete with Comcast-NBC Universal’s various platforms or video-on-demand services.
“Without additional binding enforceable mandates, the WGAW has grave concerns that the voluntary commitments offered will not effectively protect consumers and content creators from the negative impact of this merger,” Wells said.
Go here for the full text of John Wells’ testimony (.pdf)
The Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) is a labor union representing writers of motion pictures, television, radio and Internet programming, including news and documentaries. Founded in 1933, the Guild negotiates and administers contracts that protect the creative and economic rights of its members. It is involved in a wide range of programs that advance the interests of writers, and is active in public policy and legislative matters on the local, national and international levels. For more information on the WGAW, please visit: www.wga.org.