Comcast has violated the conditions of its merger with NBC by failing to air certain types of programming as required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a new study has found.
As part of the arrangement with the FCC, Comcast-NBC agreed to increase local and Spanish-language news programs for five years and produce an additional 1,000 hours annually of original news programs for a number of its stations. But media watchdog group Free Press found that the cable company deliberately counted commercials toward its local news hours and aired less than an hour of local news per day on many of its Telemundo stations.
The FCC required Comcast to file localism reports for its 25 stations to ensure that the company would comply with the stipulations. Free Press' study, "No News Is Bad News: An Analysis of Comcast-NBC Universal Compliance with FCC Localism Conditions" found that Comcast used those reports to give the FCC misleading information on its programming and what it labeled as local news.
According to the study, Comcast reported more than 1,000 hours of local news programming that were actually commercials the company aired during broadcasts. And while NBC stations showed an average of four hours and 42 minutes of local news every day, the Spanish-speaking and NBC-owned Telemundo stations aired approximately 48 minutes. Comcast also failed to include program descriptions in its localism reports, which hampered attempts by the FCC to determine whether the programs sufficiently met the merger conditions, and did not specify whether the programming tallies included reruns.
The FCC and Comcast did not respond to requests for comment.
"The report shows how media consolidation and empty commitments hurt local communities," Free Press policy counsel Corie Wright said in a statement. "NBC Universal bought Telemundo back in 2002, pledging to increase local news for Spanish-speaking audiences. But it did just the opposite and cut local jobs and journalism ... We intend to hold Comcast accountable for its local news commitment and make sure that history isn't repeated this time around."
Claiming that commercials aired during programming contributed to the "length of the program" itself obscured the more important information - the real amount of local news programming Comcast provides - it also violates the FCC merger conditions, Free Press said in its report.
"All communities deserve better local news programming," Wright said.
Free Press political adviser Joel Kelsey said the group's findings raises questions about other aspects of the FCC's requirements. If Comcast disregarded its local news stipulations, Kelsey said, "Are they abiding by their conditions, period?"
Free Press also noted that the FCC was not blameless in the report findings. When the FCC drafted its conditions for the Comcast-NBC merger, the commission mandated that "all broadcast stations, including the Telemundo O&Os [owned and operated], have an obligation to honor the localism obligation and provide their communities with locally oriented news, public affairs, and other informational programming."
But the FCC only covered six out of fifteen Telemundo stations in the merger conditions, with no explanation, and never identified which six stations were chosen.
NBC acquired Telemundo in 2002 and promised to improve programming and services to Spanish-speaking audiences and provide better opportunities for station employees. But as Free Press noted in its report, NBC actually cut local news production and distribution and laid off 700 employees.
"Telemundo stations and their audiences have already suffered from broken merger commitments," the report stated. "Indeed, previous merger activity has diminished - not improved - service to Telemundo's local communities."
On May 2, NBC announced that it would launch additional local news channels in California, Texas and Florida and produce an additional 1,000 hours of local news on all of its stations, including Telemundo O&Os.