No News Is Bad News: An Analysis of Comcast-NBCU Compliance with FCC Localism Conditions

Earlier this year, Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable and broadband provider, acquired a majority stake in NBC-Universal. The $30 billion acquisition gives the cable giant control over NBCU’s motion picture studios and broadcast and cable networks, as well as 25 broadcast television stations serving 21 local communities across the country. Despite industry and public interest group concerns that giving a single company significant market power over both the production and distribution of popular news and entertainment programming could adversely affect competition and consumers, the Federal Communications Commission approved the merger – subject to a number of conditions.

One such condition requires the combined company, “C-NBCU,” to increase local news and public affairs programming produced and distributed by NBC and Telemundo owned-and-operated stations (O&Os) for a period of five years. Specifically, C-NBCU must produce an additional 1000 hours per year of original, locally produced news and information programming on all 10 NBC O&Os, as well as an additional 1000 hours per year on six of C-NBCU’s 15 Telemundo O&Os. The FCC also requires C-NBCU-owned stations to report on compliance with this condition through quarterly “Localism Reports.”

The following analysis examines the first Localism Reports filed since consummation of the Comcast-NBCU merger in January 2011. It also marks the first of a series of Free Press reviews evaluating C-NBCU’s overall compliance with its localism commitment.

Free Press recognizes that the stations’ current performance might not yet reflect their new owner or the impact of C-NBCU’s localism commitment. Rather, we assume that these initial localism filings set the base level of local programming that C-NBCU must increase per the terms of the FCC’s Merger Order. Accordingly, we anticipate that increases in local news and public affairs programming will be reflected in C-NBCU stations’ subsequent quarterly Localism Reports. Future Free Press reports will appraise which stations and markets carry increased local programming, highlight underserved communities, and scrutinize FCC enforcement of the merger commitment.

Nevertheless, in reviewing the data, we find that C-NBCU failed to comply with a number of aspects of the FCC reporting requirement:

• C-NBCU failed to include the required program descriptions in its reports. Without these descriptions, the public and the FCC cannot accurately determine whether the programming listed actually constitutes local news and information programming.

• C-NBCU erroneously counted advertising content in its local news tallies. As a result, more than 1000 hours claimed as local news programming was not actually local news programming, but instead comprised interstitial commercials.

Despite these omissions, the data reveal the dearth of local news and public affairs programming that Telemundo O&Os provide to their communities of license, and expose a huge disparity between the amount of local news on English-language NBC O&O stations and on Spanish-language Telemundo O&O stations.

• Local programming constitutes about 20 percent of weekly programming time for NBC O&Os. For most Telemundo O&Os, local programming represents less than 3 percent of their weekly programming time.

• NBC O&Os report an average of four hours and 42 minutes per day of local programming. Telemundo O&Os average only 48 minutes per day of local programming and, in a number of markets, they air significantly less than that amount.

• In Los Angeles, the NBC station reported airing nearly four hours per day of local programming. The local Telemundo station serving Los Angeles reported less than a quarter of that amount.

• In the New York DMA, the NBC station reported close to six hours per day of local programming. The Telemundo station serving New York only provided an average of 30 minutes of local programming per day – less than one-tenth the amount of news provided to English-speaking audiences.

• Telemundo stations in Boston and Denver aired no local news and information programming between January and April 2011.

• Neither C-NBCU nor the FCC has explained why only six of the 15 communities served by Telemundo O&Os deserve to receive more local news and information programming under the merger condition.

Based on these findings, Free Press makes the following recommendations in its report:

• To comply with the requirements of the merger condition, C-NBCU must promptly correct the filing errors in current reports, and ensure that these errors are not perpetuated in future Localism Reports.

• Low levels of local programming suggest that the FCC’s merger condition is woefully insufficient to remedy the severe shortage of local Spanish-language news and information programming offered by C-NBCU-owned Telemundo stations.

Given the current paucity of local news programming that Telemundo offers to the Spanish-language community, Free Press calls upon C-NBCU to voluntarily increase local Telemundo news programming above that required by the FCC, and to commit to significantly improving local news production and distribution across all Telemundo stations that it controls.

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