Comcast and NBC: The Evolution Will Be Televised
Please forgive me if I'm not shaken to my core over Comcast's acquisition of NBCU.
What does it do? It merely creates the largest single media company in the United States of America.
There's been so much written in the past few days about why this is bad for us as consumers. Comcast, the distribution source, will now control massive amounts of content -- broadcast network NBC, over 20 cable channels, Spanish-language Telemundo, Universal Pictures, and Hulu being the company's major holdings. It will certainly be poised to create a chokehold over what consumers watch and how they watch it.
Prices will go up. Net neutrality will suffer. The new company will be able to suppress content from competitors and favor its own.
All of that is possible -- maybe probable, even with some "voluntary" restrictions imposed by the FCC factored in.
I'm still somewhat unfazed.
Sure, it's a megalith. Joe Torres, writing for the Huffington Post, suggests that the company will "control one out of every five TV viewing hours." I hate to break this to you, Joe, but 20% of TV will not be "controlled" by Comcast/NBCU. As it stands now, NBC "controls" about 20% of all English-speaking broadcast TV hours -- and it has since the consolidation of the WB and UPN. Actually, it's a bit more, as Fox and CW don't fill as much national airtime as their Big Three cousin networks.
Yes, I'm skeptical about the new company's stated strategy contributing to the progression of "media anytime, anywhere." In reality, it's much closer to "Comcast/NBCU anytime, anywhere." In the press release, Comcast joyfully proclaims that this is "an exciting day for Comcast." It's not as exciting for the consumer, as reduced competition rarely is. But is it a disaster? Right now, I can't say that it is.
Think about it: NBC has been a wounded participant in prime time for several years now. The network has no identity, no healthy, dependable franchise, and has looked to the luxuriant days of "Seinfeld," "Friends,""ER" and "The West Wing" for respectability and overall content strategies, even now that those days are long past. Network executives have forced their hand with many short-sighted and misread deals that have locked them into a solid fourth place overall. The most egregious and recent of these was anointing Conan O'Brien the host-in-waiting of the "Tonight Show," creating a firestorm of PR snafus and reactive strategies.
It goes without saying that NBC is no longer "must see" for anything anymore.
I still adhere to the adage that content is king. With no real appointment prime-time content coming from the flagship brand, this is the best time for Comcast to make this move. But all the distribution bottlenecks in the world won't make much difference if its Grade A material is made up of "30 Rock," "The Office, and the NFL in 4th Quarter. Granted, it's possible to turn things around on the strength of one top-line hit, but NBC hasn't come close to showing it's capable of that lately.
Comcast/NBCU will have to give up managing rights over Hulu, although it will still have a financial stake. That's one concession to antitrust regulations that was able to remain. So in theory, it won't be able to give an edge to its owned content as it appears on Hulu.
Another thing we won't need to worry about: one of those nasty retransmission battles between Comcast and NBC. Won't THAT be refreshing?
As I recall, GE was lambasted when it first took ownership of NBC. "What would an appliance manufacturer know about content?" was the outrage of the time. For a while, it seemed GE had a pretty good idea about what made for good TV. Lately, the best that's come of it has been the "30 Rock" VP of Programming and Microwave Oven gags.
Similarly, Disney was once thought to be on its way to media domination with its ABC and ESPN properties. But we survived that as well.
During his campaign, then-Senator Obama declared support for distributed media power. There's no hiding that position, now that his administration has green-lighted this merger. Yes, it's been written that Comcast may have made a campaign contribution or two to some who signed off on this deal.
This deal became public in 2009. We've long known it's been on its way. But suddenly, we should be "mad as hell"? Nope. You had all of 2010 to wave the outrage flag.
Why am I not frightened? Because every "Future of Media" conference I've attended or read about in at least the past five years has proffered one invariable, inevitable truth:
The Consumer Is In Control.
That's the big reason that I'm less frightened about this becoming an out-of-control monopoly. Consumers know that they have control now. We're content creators; we build our own monopolies. YouTube and Facebook weren't created in a boardroom, they were created by their own users. Corporations glommed on after both entities achieved some critical mass.
Consumers have the power. As our media choices evolve, we'll always find a work-around for things that don't work for us -- or we'll cut the cord altogether. Comcast/NBCU will do better for itself by not underestimating who's the boss here.
I mean, c'mon -- it can't be all that dire. Ricky Gervais didn't make one mention of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski during his Golden Globes roast on Sunday night. Maybe next year, right?