- - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As traditional media companies go, few are bigger and more influential than Comcast, the Philadelphia-based company that owns NBC, MSNBC, “Saturday Night Live,” Universal Studios, Telemundo and cable television systems serving much of the United States. They’re such a big player, in fact, that one might call them the dominant actor in media.

That, per se, is not a problem. But with great power and media concentration come great responsibility to ensure diversity in the marketplace. This is true for both programming and advertising. The prospect, therefore, of Comcast trying to monopolize the business of selling ads on local cable systems is troubling.

Even with advent of internet-based messages sent to targeted voters directly, many believe local cable remains a powerful political advertising platform. Over the last few years the business has grown by more than 50 percent to about $1.3 billion.

Local cable systems allow campaigns to target voters they want to reach without having to spend a lot of money to get to voters that don’t matter. A candidate running for Virginia governor relying solely on broadcast television would have to buy time on television stations in Washington, D.C. It’s expensive and reaches voters in the nation’s capital, Maryland, West Virginia and perhaps even parts of Delaware who can’t vote in Virginia gubernatorial contests. Local cable ads allow that same candidate to reach voters in critical areas like Northern Virginia without wasting resources.

Political advertising on broadcast television has dropped by 20 percent at the same time ads on local cable proliferated for just this sort of reason. In the last election candidates who spent more on local cable television ads more often than not won.



For some time now Comcast has been directly and indirectly taking over the ad sales operations of its competitors — AT&T, Verizon, RCN — in key media markets. In Washington, D.C., it controls 100 percent of all local cable advertising on every cable network. This may just be a business decision or it could be deliberately political.

The company is run by Brian Roberts and David Cohen, two politically active Democrats who were so cozy with Barack Obama and his administration the president visited Mr. Roberts at his house on ritzy Martha’s Vineyard while on vacation. They’re close to both Clintons, Mr. Cohen being a major contributor to her 2016 presidential campaign.

Does this matter? Comcast recently gave its employees time off with pay to protest President Trump’s executive order suspending the flow of refugees and visa holders to the United States from some of the world’s most dangerous countries. “We understand that some of our employees are concerned and we respect their desire to express their opinions,” company spokesman John Demming said in a statement.

There’s something going on that’s more than just traditional business activity. A company giving its employees time off with pay to protest the actions of the president might just as easily make its resources — like the ability to provide highly effective local cable ads at below-market rates — to political organizations challenging the president’s agenda. We’ve seen it before as when The New York Times cut a deal to let ultra-left-wing MoveOn.org buy a full-page ad at bargain basement prices attacking Gen. David Petraeus during the ultimately effective Bush-era “surge” in Iraq.

Comcast could use its control of local ad markets — which overlap 20 of the 33 U.S. senators up in 2018, 20 of the 36 gubernatorial contests, and 234 congressional campaigns — to sway the outcome of elections. This is the kind of thing that ought to get the attention of senior White House political advisers like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, both of whom are charged with thinking strategically about the best way to communicate to the American people what Mr. Trump wants to do about media concentration and voting issues.

The Justice Department was looking at Comcast’s apparent attempts to monopolize local cable ad sales during the Obama administration but — surprise, surprise — nothing has yet come of it despite the belief of many in the antitrust community that some kind of Justice Department action is merited. Indeed, Comcast’s actions led one of the company’s competitors, a Kentucky-based firm called Viamedia, to bring its own antitrust lawsuit in federal court after Comcast excluded Viamedia and its partners from key media markets.

Neither action, though, addresses the political issues involved were a liberal-leaning media giant in control of a particularly effective portion of the marketplace to decide to put its thumb on the scales in support of or opposition to a president’s or political party’s agenda.

Everyone knows the mainstream American media has an inherent bias. Mr. Bannon was not far off the mark when he recently labeled it the “opposition party.” What few people seem to realize is that bias comes from the top down; it’s not just reporters but editors and corporate executives who let it go on. They could stop it if they wanted to, but they don’t. The challenge now, and it would be unfortunate to have to invoke the power of the Justice Department to do it, is to keep it from getting worse — as might be the case if Comcast is allowed to continue what The Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine and others have called “business practices in cable advertising sales that are anti-competitive.” Unchecked, Comcast might try to seize for itself the power to exert undue influence over Mr. Trump’s agenda for the next four years or even pick the president, the governors and the Congress in the next election.

• Peter Roff is a commentator on the One America News network.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide