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On the Media: Comcast's local-news pledge rings hollow

Given the hucksterism that qualifies as reporting in the 'public interest,' don't expect much improvement at KNBC-TV after the latest media mega-merger.

January 22, 2011|James Rainey
  • NBC's "The Biggest Loser"
NBC's "The Biggest Loser" (Trae Patton / NBC )

Among the many promises made in its just-approved takeover of NBC Universal, Comcast Corp. pledged to sustain and even add hundreds of hours to the news and public affairs programming at the 10 TV stations NBC owns around the country.

As a baby step in the right direction, NBC should start by putting in the garbage-disposal all those no-calorie "news" segments about, for example, "The Biggest Loser," "Law & Order," "America's Got Talent" and movies from Universal Pictures. Convert those time slots, instead, to some meat and potatoes coverage about what's happening in our neighborhoods, our schools, our city halls.

Not that there appears to be the vaguest hope that the news savants at NBC will ask local stations to back away from shameless hucksterism. That's the stock in trade across the television networks when it comes to using the news to pump up other corporate properties.

If you want to see Exhibit 1 that NBC's local stations don't have a clue about what constitutes real news, take a trip out to KNBC's headquarters in Beautiful Downtown Burbank. There, like at other FCC-licensed stations, you have the right to eyeball the "public file."

The file includes all sorts of interesting morsels but most importantly — for these purposes — a listing of the news programs that the stations consider serve the public best.

What makes you want to laugh (or is it cry?) are some of the stories listed under the report titled "Quarterly List of Programming Providing the Most Significant Treatment of Community Issues." In the last three months of 2010, there was a segment from Sept. 16 called "A giant inflatable gorilla has been stolen from a Simi Valley Kia dealership." Or this from Dec. 15: "KISS vocalist Paul Stanley has a second career as a painter."

Then come the multiple line items listing KNBC stories that shill for NBC's prime-time lineup, at least a handful for "The Biggest Loser," the same for "America's Got Talent," a couple of pieces on "Law & Order Los Angeles" and a story on the finale of the a cappella singing competition "The Sing Off."

But NBC Uni owns a lot of things. So don't just pimp your TV offerings. You've got theme parks too. In September, viewers saw about three minutes on the 11 p.m. newscast, according to the log, on the opening of "Bates Motel: The annual Halloween Horror Nights attraction" at Universal Studios. An anchor assured us it was a "great time" and weatherman Fritz Coleman called it "the best haunt in town."

And your Universal Pictures division has movies. So there's not only a story about "The Dilemma," the recent Ron Howard pic about a couple of buddies and marital trouble, but one hawking a title from Universal's film library. The public surely is well served by that story on the 25th anniversary of "Back to the Future," now available from Universal Home Entertainment! And for the 30th anniversary? Perhaps a half-hour "Special Report."

If this ranks among the "most significant" treatment of community issues, you would hate to see the worst, wouldn't you?

To hold an FCC license, stations like KNBC agree that in exchange for the use of the precious and finite public airwaves they will operate in the "public interest." That means airing programs that are "responsive to the needs and problems of its local community."

The helpful people at KNBC will lead you to a file drawer jammed with quarterly reports, dating back more than a decade, documenting its compliance with these rules.

In addition to the faux public service offerings promoting NBC Universal products, the bulk of the listings are for legitimate or semi-legitimate news stories. I found notations about political stories, piles of crime reporting and, for example, investigative reporter Joel Grover's look at how some local farmers markets aren't so local, or so organic.

As part of its union with NBC, Comcast has pledged to add 1,000 hours of news and public affairs programming a year across the 10 stations that it owns and operates, including KNBC. That would break down to just 16 minutes per day per station, according to public interest groups.

The company hasn't said how it will fulfill that obligation, or how anyone could really measure it, given the unspecified starting point for that kind of programming. Still, some who work inside KNBC think that the station will meet its portion of the obligation via a soon-to-be-launched digital news channel called California Non Stop.

The people I talked to, who didn't want to be named for fear of losing their jobs, predicted the California Non Stop programs would not reach nearly as many viewers as the mother station, KNBC. They said the lineup of shows on the drawing board — with names like "The Mix," and "the Rundown" and "Foodies" — will be fluffy, advertiser-friendly fare.

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