One critic likened cable TV giant Comcast Corp. to a plantation, while another pointed to the BP oil spill disaster as what could happen when companies escape tough regulatory scrutiny. Then an influential congresswoman dropped a bomb by hinting that Comcast had tried to buy her support for one of the biggest media deals in history.
Those were some of criticisms and charges that flew during a field hearing held Monday by the House Judiciary Committee at the California Science Center in South Los Angeles to review the proposed Comcast-NBC Universal Inc. merger. The hearing was convened by committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) but largely run by Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.
The session, attended by more than 100 people, lasted almost four hours and was frequently interrupted by applause, cheers and groans from the audience. The hearing was called to examine programming and workplace diversity issues arising from the merger, which would bring under one roof the nation's largest cable operator and a TV powerhouse that includes the NBC TV network, Universal Pictures movie studio and cable channels USA, Bravo and MSNBC.
Waters grilled an NBC executive over how many minority producers the network had on its shows and asked Conyers if it was possible to subpoena Comcast if it was not forthcoming on information the committee's members wanted. Waters, whose district includes Gardena, Hawthorne and Inglewood, made clear that she was not interested in gestures of goodwill or hearing about how much Comcast and NBC Universal had given to the "NAACP, Al Sharpton and the Urban League."
At one point in the session, Waters volunteered that she had received a call from "somebody at Comcast asking, 'What do you want?'"
Waters said she responded by stressing the need for diversity of voices in the media, and that the Comcast person said, "I'm talking about what do you want?"
Asked after the hearing for details about her phone call with Comcast, Waters declined to elaborate. "We go no further," she said.
A Comcast spokeswoman denied Waters' suggestion of an improper conversation.
"Any implication that anyone ever inquired about what Congresswoman Waters would want personally is completely untrue. We meet and discuss the proposed joint venture with many members of Congress and other leaders. We have repeatedly tried to understand Congresswoman Waters' concerns so that we can address them."
Approval of the merger rests with the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, not Congress. However, Congress has budget oversight of the agency and department, and regularly holds hearing to make its thoughts known. There have also been hearings on the merger held by the Senate Commerce Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a Senate antitrust subcommittee.
Waters said she wanted a "labor-intensive review" by the Justice Department because many independent writers and producers are "afraid to voice concerns" about the pending union of Comcast and NBC "for fear of blacklisting and other retaliation."
Producer Suzanne de Passe, an industry veteran, testified that "consolidation significantly slows down and diminishes opportunities for minorities," adding that the relaxation of many regulations has hurt independent producers, who are often required to "give up all ownership" to get shows on the air.
At another point, Samuel Kang, managing attorney for the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, said, "We have learned from the BP disaster what can happen when there isn't regulatory screening."
Some of the witnesses sparred with one another.
Stanley Washington, chief executive of the National Coalition of African American Owned Media, traded barbs with Alfred Liggins, chief executive of TV One, a cable network aimed at African Americans in which Comcast owns a stake, as well as with Will Griffin, chief executive of Hip Hop on Demand.
Washington, who called Comcast a "plantation" and criticized it for not doing enough to support African American-owned channels, challenged TV One's claim to be a black-owned company. That earned a rebuke from Griffin.
"I submit that President Obama is black enough, and so is TV One, and so is Hip Hop on Demand," Griffin said.
On Monday, before the hearing, Comcast and NBC unveiled initiatives they said would improve diversity, both in terms of programming and in the operation of the merged entity.
Comcast said it would expand on its commitment to add two independently owned and operated cable networks to its systems over the next three years. Comcast, which has almost 25 million subscribers, also said it would "review the pricing and packaging of its minority-oriented programming."
The two companies added that they would increase efforts to employ a diverse senior staff as well as create four "diversity advisory councils" aimed at African Americans, Latinos, Asians and "other diverse communities." NBC Universal and Comcast said they would seek to bolster minority programming and make greater contributions to institutions and organizations that work in underserved communities.
"Would they be doing this if we weren't doing this?" Waters asked.