Comcast and NBC's Real Diversity Issues

At last month's house hearing on the proposed Comcast-NBC takeover, execs from both companies shamefully acknowledged their diversity problems. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sheepishly divulged that his company's board of directors includes only one woman and one person of color, and NBC's Jeff Zucker confessed that the network has no Black programming.

Watch the video:

Seeing Roberts and Zucker sweat under heavy fire from Congress got us wondering: What else should we be asking about these companies' woeful commitment to diversity?

The merger would likely exacerbate existing structural flaws in the media system; consolidation has historically been bad news for media ownership diversity. Free Press has done studies showing that as media markets consolidate, the likelihood of media ownership by a woman or person of color decreases.

Media mergers have also proven bad for local and diverse programming. In fact, when NBC bought Telemundo in 2001, the network pledged more local news. But a few years after the merger was approved, NBC created cheap regional newscasts that phoned-in canned coverage, with an insert or two of actual local news. Nine years later, we should ask, will this happen again? How do we ensure that news coverage serving communities of color won't be further cut? How can we ensure that it improves?

One thing we cannot do is accept these companies' promises that they'll "do better." That's just lip service to win merger approval. They'll renege as soon as the ink dries on the deal. Rather, we need to begin asking for remedies that will change the structural status quo in ways that benefit people of color and women as entrepreneurs, owners, media professionals, and audiences and consumers. In other words, getting NBC to feature more people of color as guests on its news programs is a step in the right direction, but it is not as effective as getting the company to commit to providing more hours of local Spanish language news, or requiring Comcast to carry an independent cable channel that's owned by a person of color.

But we'll never get to those changes if we don't start asking more aggressive questions. Here's a start:

Why are Comcast's commitments regarding Telemundo so pathetic? As part of its voluntary merger concessions, the company promised to add Telemundo programming to Comcast's on-demand library -- but that merely involved moving Telemundo re-runs to a cable platform. That's a way to generate new (and expensive) cable subscriptions, but it does nothing to enhance broadcast localism or program diversity for the underserved Spanish language market.

Comcast also promised to create a new channel that will air Telemundo's "library of programming." "Library" is industry code for - yet again -- re-runs. Comcast has essentially promised to create a Telenovela channel rather than invest in new programming or more local news. Why won't Comcast invest in localism for Spanish language stations?

And even while Roberts and Zucker sputtered on C-Span that they're trying to improve diversity on multiple fronts, I haven't seen any move to make this a true priority. For instance, Comcast has committed to adding independent channels to its post-merger lineup, but why hasn't it committed to making sure any of the channels are owned by women or people of color?

When put under the magnifying glass, Roberts and Zucker appeared to be embarrassed about their companies' diversity track records, but was that enough to motivate a change? Probably not. If we want a system that gives us local news, diverse programming for diverse audiences and minority media ownership, we have to change media ownership in this country - and it can begin with refusing to let these two companies merge.