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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Column: Beating the system

In January, my favorite news anchor, Brian Williams, reported that “Federal Regulators (the FCC) approved the purchase by Comcast of a majority stake in NBC Universal from General Electric. This merger will create a $30 billion media company with cable, broadcast, internet, motion picture and theme park components.” Now I’ve never been savvy in the business world, so I didn’t particularly care who Comcast chose to buy or sell, just as long as I could continue paying them $40.95 a month to watch all my TV on Hulu instead.

But while I was circumventing Comcast’s cable prices watching Hulu this week, I saw something that disturbed me, something I had to use this week’s column to rationalize.

To begin, it seems that taking advantage of one another has become the defining characteristic of the relationship between cable providers and their customers. They charge us unreasonable rates for internet, cable and phone lines that are only affordable in bundles because they’ve bought all of their competition; we in turn purchase as few of their services as we can because we use their internet to steal the services we refuse to pay for, like cable (Hulu) or phone (Skype). Or porn (HuluPorn? Did I just make my million?).

We college kids are smart. We beat the system – good for us. We’ve stopped caring about whether Comcast will make enough money to send its employees’ children to college one day because we have to operate on financial self-preservation. We’ve learned to navigate the waters of corporate greed at an unprecedented early age. For me, this is why the acquisition of NBC by Comcast was little more than an explanation for the Cabletown plot on “30 Rock.”

However, just because we college kids might not care doesn’t mean this merger is unimportant to the average consumer.

Josh Silver, former president and CEO of Free Press, a nonprofit organization working to reform the media, testified before the FCC that “The merger would dramatically increase Comcast’s incentive and ability to raise prices, block competitive entry, force bundles on other cable systems and discriminate in carriage of competing programming. For consumers, this would spell even higher prices…”

Well, fuck. If Comcast can do all of this sketchy stuff by buying NBC for $13.75 billion, who’s to say Hulu or Skype (or SkypePorn) aren’t next? Then we’d have to pay Comcast’s unreasonable prices for all our services! What kind of federal regulator would allow such an insidious plot against the consumers they’re appointed to protect?

FCC Commissioner Atwell Baker. Under her leadership, the FCC is allowing Comcast to take one giant leap toward monopolization (which is illegal only in the completely useless sense of the word), as long as they agree not to do the predatory things a monopoly might, like making programming unavailable to emerging online companies like Hulu or Netflix (or, for the love of god, NetflixPorn). The agreement also forces Comcast to “continue offering an affordable, standalone broadband option for customers who want internet access but not cable TV service.” This way, college kids like you and me can continue feeling as if we beat the system for another decade or so.

Unfortunately, I haven’t even explored the most controversial aspect of this story yet, the tidbit that got me ruminating in the first place. According to Free Press, “Less than four months after Commissioner Atwell Baker voted to approve Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal, she’s reportedly departing the FCC to lobby for Comcast-NBC. This is just the latest – though perhaps most blatant – example of a so-called public servant cashing in at a company she is supposed to be regulating.”

Now if you’re a college kid accustomed to “beating the system” and taking advantage of your cable provider in your own little way, you might be tempted to say, “Atwell Baker is smart. She beat the system, good for her.” But if you’re an American who recognizes that regulatory agencies like the FCC are only useful – nay, constitutional – if they protect the best interests of the consumer, then you may be inclined to feel otherwise.

We will never know whether Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal will be good or bad for consumers until it’s too late, because the commissioner of the FCC got paid for her vote.

At some point, we smart college kids will have to examine our own behavior in taking advantage of our cable company and ask ourselves if Atwell Baker’s is the type of corruption we’re capable of. Does our media system breed more Atwell Bakers? If the answer is yes, then the problem is larger than one opportunistic and sociopathic FCC commissioner.

If you support HuluPorn too, then go to act2.freepress.net/sign/baker_comcast and join JOSH ROTTMAN on Free Press’s petition of the Comcast-FCC merger. Then reach him at jjrottman@ucdavis.edu.


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