Good for Comcast, Bad for Us?

Guest Commentary

A former president of General Motors once told Congress "what's good for GM is good for the country." Comcast now repeats this refrain. Although cable rates keep rising faster than inflation, cable remains the dominant provider of residential broadband. But in the past year particularly, the public has grown deeply suspicious of the power of "big media."

Now Comcast wants to convince Congress and the FCC that its proposed takeover of Disney will serve both the public interest and shareholders.

The cable giant has certainly shown it knows what's good for Comcast. In Philadelphia, to fend off a competitive threat from cable overbuilders such as RCN, Comcast spent whatever it took to get a lock on local sports franchises. Then it exploited the "terrestrial loophole" in the program access rules to avoid making its sports programming available to rivals.

Good for Comcast, but was it good for Philadelphia? Comcast hasn't passed along any savings to subscribers. At the same time, the people of Philadelphia have been denied the only form of competition the GAO finds effective: cable overbuilders.

On the content side, Comcast has a reputation for ruthlessness in leveraging its lock on 30% of the cable market and resisting efforts of communities to create public educational/government and leased-access channels. When Comcast dominates programming and block community access, it denies subscribers diversity of views and independent programming.

Worse, Comcast's conduct hints it may not be above a bit of corporate censorship. In January 2003, Comcast refused to air cable ad buys from an anti-war group before and during the president's State of the Union Address. Critics accuse Comcast of doing favors for the party in power in the hope of a return favor, such as when the administration reviews a proposed merger. Comcast maintains that the ads made unsubstantiated allegations.

Now Comcast wants to add Disney's news operations, broadcast stations, programming networks, and content production to its arsenal. This will give Comcast unprecedented leverage. It will control some of the most watched local voices in Disney-owned stations. It will have unmatched leverage in negotiations over digital must-carry, cable programming, and broadband content. It can lend support to useful political causes or candidates by selecting what issues to cover on ABC World News Tonight
or Nightline. It can silence rivals and punish politicians by refusing to take ads or cover their issues. It can exercise power as the dominant residential broadband provider in its franchise areas to promote its new Disney/ABC content while slowing access to rival content. And it can use its power over the cable box to give its own digital content preference. That would be very good for Comcast. It would be a disaster for America.