Seriously, it must be every Hollywood creative’s fantasy to confront their one-time bosses and excoriate their business practices. This afternoon, Al Franken got that chance. Of course, he wasn’t doing it as a former NBC comedy writer/performer on Saturday Night Live back when he was beholden to the company that employed him. Or even as a former Air America liberal talk radio host. No, he faced off against NBCU Up on Capitol Hill as a U.S. Senator at today’s Judiciary Committee’ Anti-Trust Subcommitee hearing regarding the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal/GE merger. Frankly, I love what he said because it’s all so very true. And Big Media needs a bitchslapping like this more regularly. Pity Jeff Zucker: here’s one defiant late night comedian whom NBCU’s Captain Queeg can’t fire or put on ice.
Here’s the full text of Sen. Franken’s opening statement as prepared:
Thank you, Senator Kohl, for giving me an opportunity to speak. As some of you may know, I’m not a lawyer, but I used to be in show business. In fact, I worked for NBC for many years. And what I know from my previous career has given me reason to be concerned—let me rephrase that, very concerned—about the potential merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.
Let me start with something pretty basic: it matters who runs our media companies. The media are our source of entertainment, but they’re also the way we get our information about the world. So when the same company produces the programs and runs the pipes that bring us those programs, we have a reason to be nervous.
I was at NBC in the 1990s, when Financial Interest and Syndication rules—more commonly known as Fin-Syn–were relaxed and then essentially eliminated. Until then, Fin-Syn rules had prevented networks from owning more than a very small portion of the programs they aired. This was to prevent an inherent conflict of interest.
At that time, NBC executives testified that gutting Fin-Syn would not lead the network to favor its own programming. To the contrary, the NBC President declared, “It is in our self-interest to do everything we can to promote a strong independent production community.”
But by 1992, NBC was the single largest supplier of its own prime-time programming. Today, if an independent producer wants to get its show on a network’s schedule, it’s a routine practice for the network to demand at least part ownership of the show. This is completely contrary to what NBC and the other networks said they would do when they were trying to get Fin-Syn rescinded.
So while I commend NBCU and Comcast for making voluntary commitments as part of this merger, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t just trust their promises.
To make matters worse, after Fin-Syn, studios started buying up networks—Disney bought ABC, and Viacom, which owns Paramount, bought CBS. I’m worried that this merger could set off another round of media consolidation. The next thing we know, AT&T and Verizon may decide that they also have to buy a Hollywood studio in order to compete. And that would hurt the ability of Minnesotans—and people around the country—to get access to important information and it will make their cable bills go up.
I look forward to hearing today’s testimony, and the opportunity to discuss some of these important issues in more depth. Thank you.
7:30 AM: Brian Roberts and Jeff Zucker are appearing before the U.S. House Communications Commitee this morning and scheduled before the U.S. Senate antitrust subcommittee this afternoon over the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal/GE joint venture. More later.