Comcast-Time Warner deal looks like bad news for the rest of us

There really wasn't too much of an interest on the Sunday morning public affairs show this past weekend, though it was nice to see the networks devote some airtime to climate change after a winter for the record books.

The best segment was on CNN's Reliable Sources program, now hosted by former New York Times television writer Brian Stelter. He had on Craig Aaron, CEO of the public-interest group Free Press to break down the deal, and why he thinks it blows for consumers.

CRAIG AARON, FREE PRESS: Well, I think shocked and appalled is absolutely right, Brian. I think this deal, if it goes through, would give Comcast way too much power over what we watch, see, hear, read and download every day. This would make Comcast a gatekeeper basically over all our forms of media and communication, giving them a lot of power to dictate the terms of the business, to decide what goes on the Internet and what doesn't, certainly what goes on your cable system and what doesn't. And I think that's too much power in the hands of one company that if this deal goes through would stretch to more — nearly two-thirds of American homes would be offered service by the new giant Comcast.

STELTER: Let me play devil's advocate with you. If Comcast is so bad, why are 20 some million subscribers to it seemingly happy throughout the country?

AARON: Well, I don't know about happily because Comcast regularly ranks among the worst companies in surveys of customer service.

STELTER: You're saying they have nobody to switch to, I guess?

AARON: I'm saying they're the only game in town. If you want high-speed Internet in most of the country, your only choice is the local cable company. And for more and more Americans and maybe a lot more, that company is Comcast.

Now, that doesn't mean that, you know, people want to give up the Internet or don't want to be able to watch shows like this, they absolutely do, but it does mean that consumers don't have a lot of freedom. They don't have a lot of choice. If they're unhappy with a company, they have nowhere else to turn.

STELTER: You know, this big media war can feel small sometimes. That's what you're getting at. The channel that we're on, CNN, is owned by Time Warner, which until 2009 also owned Time Warner Cable, which is now being bought by Comcast.

And, you know, full disclosure here, my fiancee, who I'm going to marry in a week, works at Time Warner Cable, she will be a Comcast employee, if this deal goes through. It seems like these are companies so big and I wonder if they're journalistic or other ethical questions you think this brings up when one company — in this case, Comcast — owns so many news channels, as well as entertainment channels.

AARON: I think there's real concerns for people with Comcast having this much control. They do own and operate one of the biggest news operations there is, NBC. And all of the NBC cable channels, as well as dozens and dozens of local television stations and there's a lot of incentive for Comcast if they could get away with it to give a leg up for their own content and services. That's true on the news side, that's true on the entertainment side.

STELTER: Now Comcast, we asked them to come on this week, they declined. But I know what they would say here, they would say we haven't done any of that. We have been responsible corporate citizens ever since the NBC merger three years ago.

Have you seen any evidence that contradicts that?

AARON: Well, you know, I think content wise they've continued down the path. One question will be are MSNBC and CNBC, are they going to cover this merger? Are they going to cover it critically?

STELTER: Well, you mentioned the Internet, maybe the most important part of this. We're talking about television a lot here. But Comcast wants to charge more and more for faster and faster Internet.

Is that where the regulators in Washington should be paying the most attention when they scrutinize this deal?

AARON: I think so. I think at its core this deal is really about broadband Internet. That's the future. That's the market that Comcast is really trying to lock down with this deal.

It's vastly profitable for them right now and they know if they can position themselves as the gatekeepers online, everything in the future has to go through them. I think we have real concerns when really the only high-speed offering in many places is going to be that Comcast cable connection.

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