Imagine, if you will, that one day it was announced that your local supermarket was buying up the road system between you and the grocer. It's an unusual merger, so it receives considerable government review before it's approved, and when it is cleared, there are restrictions in place to make certain the supermarket will maintain the road in the way to which customers have been accustomed.
At first, who owns the road doesn't matter much, and life goes on as usual. But when the first major snow falls, you find that the roadways leading to the supermarket are plowed, but roads to other shops and locations take a bit longer to get cleared. Eventually the supermarket begins charging a small fee for using the roads: not much, and it guarantees you clear passage to and from the place you get your milk and eggs, so what the hell? But eventually you find that while getting to the supermarket is easy enough, the roads to other stores are under bad repair.
The government requirements imposed on the supermarket when it first bought the road system have long since expired, and now you find that if you want to use alternate roads and visit other shops for specialty items, you're paying an extra fee for the privilege. Traveling to the supermarket is fast and easy, but the prices for its products have doubled since before it owned the roads.
Impossible, you say? The merger of Comcast and NBC approved last week by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department has, in effect, made the above scenario entirely possible for the world of media.
Some pundits have suggested this unholy union between the service provider and the media producer will eventually turn the Internet into a system modeled on cable television. Instead of something driven by individuals and limited only by the imaginations of its users, the experience will be controlled by a corporation, and instead of a flat fee for an all-you-can-eat buffet, everything will have a price attached.
In addition to the NBC broadcast network, Comcast now owns numerous cable channels, dozens of local stations, a few movie studios, several amusement parks and some major league sports teams—all in addition to a physical network of cable and Internet systems that dominates the American media landscape.
Four of the five FCC commissioners approved of the merger, but the fifth, Democrat Michael Copps, did not. "Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal is a transaction like no other that has come before this commission—ever," he wrote in his dissenting opinion. "It reaches into virtually every corner of our media and digital landscapes and will affect every citizen in the land. It is new media as well as old; it is news and information as well as sports and entertainment; it is distribution as well as content. And it confers too much power in one company's hands.
"...The potential for walled gardens [on the Internet]," Copps continued, "toll booths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end users, and a stake in the heart of independent content production is now very real."
Several provisions needed to be accepted by Comcast before the government allowed the deal to be sealed. Comcast will not be permitted to give preference to NBC content being delivered online, for instance, and another condition prevents Comcast from refusing to sell its programs to competing Internet video distributors, such as Netflix. For a period of time Comcast has also promised to help get more low-income households on line by offering computer training, low-cost computers, and Internet access for as low as $10 a month.
Josh Silver, president of the Florence-based Free Press, a media advocacy group, pointed out in a Huffington Post editorial that while the FCC chairman and Comcast argued that the conditions will protect the public, "they fail to mention that the key provisions are either voluntary... or expire after a few years. Then, all bets are off, as the merger squeezes out what's left of independent, diverse voices from television dials, and forever changes the Internet as we know it."
Silver places much of the blame for this "Comcastrophe" on President Obama, quoting promises he made before taking office.
"I strongly favor diversity of ownership of outlets and protection against the excessive concentration of power in the hands of any one corporation, interest or small group. I strongly believe that all citizens should be able to receive information from the broadest range of sources," Obama said in June, 2008.