Here's your quick capsule of who believes what: Consumer advocates and members of Congress declare the merger of cable's top two system owners will be anything but pro-public, with whatever innovative technology and services that result having higher monthly rates tacked on. The major content creators speaking out so far (from Disney/ABC to Scripps Networks) defend the agreement, believing as long as they whip up quality programming, they'll keep their channel positions and get more dollars for them. Production unions, including the Writers Guild of America, vow to break the deal up, charging less diversity of material and fewer independently-owned new channels reaching viewers.
At early glance, there's no doubt this deal will get microscopic scrutiny from Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and other regulatory agencies, with little chance it will pass muster on an early date this fall. You also sense Comcast will have to do more than divest systems reaching up to three million customers to reach the finish line on this agreement.
One thing Comcast can do to ease the breakup buzz from these sides in the near turn is agree to extend and expand the new network diversity movement it launched as part of acquiring full control of NBC Universal four years ago. At that time, NBC promised to launch 10 independently-created channels on its cable systems, without taking equity in them. Four would come from African-American sources, four from Latino sources and two would be wild cards. More than 100 network proposals were submitted in the first round of this movement, with BabyFirst Americas, Aspire, Revolt and El Rey Network chosen.
All these networks have launched. Six more channels are to be selected and premiere by 2017-18. There's no word yet on when the second round of proposals covering these remaining nets will happen.
When everyone starts dissecting this merger deal in public, Comcast has the opportunity, without prompting, to divulge those plans, adding that merger deal or no, they will over-deliver on their initial diversity promise. Rather than 10 networks, it should carry 15 or 20. Along with more services crafted by African-Americans and Latinos, declare that at least two networks will come from Asian-American entrepreneurs, and one from Native Americans, a group waiting for decades to see a linear basic or digital network showing off their culture, history, issues and contributions to society 24/7. Say that these networks, featuring original programming, will debut before 2018 at the earliest, 2020 the latest.
By itself, this commitment may not get Comcast/Time Warner Cable to fruition. Consider it a keystone en route.
Other observations from the passing parade:
***In the weeks leading up to this mega-merger news, Time Warner Cable here in NYC executed two initiatives that put it more in touch with customers. First, it staged a Super Bowl week "Studios" showcase near Manhattan's popular High Line walkway, featuring exhibits from HBO to Revolt and Sprout. Then, taking a page from the Apple store a block away, the system opened a new permanent demonstration space on W. 23rd St. to display coming TV, Web and phone services. Time Warner systems elsewhere should somehow copycat both initiatives.
***The production of NBC Universal's Olympics coverage is first-rate, and kudos to both Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira for filling in while NBC primetime/late-night host Bob Costas recovers from an eye infection. However, more than a week in, many journalists covering TV are rushing in with terms like dominant and juggernaut to describe the ratings results. No way. The primetime ratings are lower than in Vancouver 2010. Roughly 20-23 percent of all viewers watching primetime are tuned to NBC on average, and when up to 80 percent of all viewers are watching something else, that's not a juggernaut. It appears that way because many broadcast and cable networks are not aggressively counterprogramming the coverage. AMC is with The Walking Dead, and it's scoring. So did CBS' Beatles special last Sunday.
***Why are NBC's ratings down? It’s easy to fault the tape-delay. My guess: The lack of Team USA medals in key sports such as figure skating, skiing and speed-skating, plus no emergence of some athlete or team, no matter where in the world they come from, that's transcending the action. Look for a ratings free-fall the rest of the way if there's no reversal of fortune.
***Two other Olympic points. First, the Sochi games may in the long run propel people to watch NBC Sports Network more often. Second, I beg you NBC, run the entire closing ceremonies in primetime. Don't break them up, as was done in both London and Vancouver, so we have to wait past midnight for the finish, a la the Academy Awards. You do both viewers and your production crew a huge disservice.
***Looks like El Rey Network will be first on this year's upfront presentation calendar. It goes to bat with a breakfast on February 26. Also early: 20th Century-Fox's syndication unit, holding an evening affair featuring Celebrity Name Game (and The Late Late Show) host Craig Ferguson. Don't believe Geoff, the horse or puppets from Late Late will be on hand.
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