MI: Are you laughing with your cable provider?

Posted on February 1, 2008 - 8:09am.

from: Media Mouse

Are you laughing with your cable provider?

About a year ago, Comcast ran an ad called the "Laugh Riot" which had the look of a Seattle style WTO protest, featuring cops in riot gear, people throwing things at the cops, and even street puppets. Unlike real confrontations between cops and street protesters where people get beat up and arrested, this commercial invited viewers to get Comcast cable and enjoy all the wonderful comedy programs they offered.

Like other Comcast ads, this commercial tried to entice young audiences with visual messages that make their company seem edgy and lots of fun. Other ads have featured talking turtles-the Slowskys, a guy dressed in a Spiderman outfit, and the frequent Triple Play ad. The Triple Play commercial tries to seduce viewers with the idea that Comcast can provide all your communication needs - cable, Internet and phone service. Wow! You mean Comcast can do all that? So, how did this cable company become such a huge media player and why is that relevant to Joe and Josephine Citizen?

According to the group Free Press, "Comcast is the largest cable and broadband communications provider in the United States, owning about 28.9% of the U.S. market. Comcast gained 1.8 million subscribers from its joint acquisition of Adelphia with Time Warner. Comcast now has 23.3 million cable customers (plus 3.5 million) held in various partnerships." Since Comcast is so large, it can wield a tremendous amount of power in the political arena. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Comcast is the 2nd largest campaign donor in the telecommunications industry in the 2008 Election cycle. As of mid-January Comcast had already donated over $1 million to candidates, with about 65% going to Democrats. So what does Comcast stand to gain by funding politicians?

Like other corporations Comcast, lines the pockets of elected officials in order to influence legislation. In the late 1990s, Comcast lobbied heavily to have the cable industry de-regulated, meaning that fewer cable companies could gobble up the cable market and make deeper in roads into other telecom sectors such as the Internet. In 2002, Comcast bought AT&T broadband, a purchase that gave Comcast the status of the nation's largest cable provider, a status it still holds today.

In late 2005, Comcast partnered with wireless provider Sprint Nextel Corp. and cable companies Time Warner, Cox Enterprises, and Bright House Networks to develop new products to combine cable technology and interactive features with wireless technology. Comcast is one of the major forces behind the push for further corporate control of broadband services. Many communities in the US have attempted to create a free wireless system for its residents, or in some cases at least a small addition to residential property taxes were proposed to fund community wireless projects. It's kind of like having your tax dollars pay for public libraries. Comcast and other big media companies have stepped in to prevent this from happening, saying that it would be a "free market distortion." Decoded, this would mean it limits Comcast's ability to make more money off the public.

For those of you who have cable in the Greater Grand Rapids area, you know that Comcast went digital. This means that there are more channels available than before - more sports channels, more shopping channels, more re-runs of old TV shows, and more pay-per-view options. Pretty exciting isn't it? This digital switch also means that the PEG channels (the public access, educational and government channels), will be moved from 24-29 to 900 and something...way out in some digital black hole. These channels, which are commercial free don't advertise that they exist and many people would come across them by doing what we fondly call "channel surfing." You know, you got the remote and you are going through 90 channels and there is nothing on the damn TV. Then all of a sudden you come across someone doing Frank Sinatra impersonations...yep, it's the public access channel. Now, as of this writing a judge in Detroit has put a stop to Comcast in its desire to move these PEG channels pending the outcome of a lawsuit. In some ways it is simply an informality, since Comcast and other big media companies in Michigan got the state legislature to change the laws in late 2006.

Cable legislation historically--known as franchise agreements--was designed so that in order for the cable company to run its line through a community they has to sign a franchise agreement that would give something back to the community. Municipalities could just ask for money to use in whatever way they saw fit or they could use that money to fund Public Access, Educational and Government channels. This money didn't come directly from Comcast, instead the company would divert a few pennies from everyone's monthly bill to fund the PEG channels. No tax dollars were ever used to fund these free speech and information programs. But Comcast didn't want those channels to continue because it would, you guessed it, be a free market distortion. I mean really, why have channels that have no advertising? How can Comcast make money if there are no commercials? Besides, TV without commercials, it's absurd.

This change in the Michigan legislation over cable franchising happened in large part because Comcast and their friends made serious donations to politicians. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Comcast alone gave just under $200,000 in 2006 to influence election outcomes. However, AT&T, which is a co-conspirator with Comcast, was the lead entity on this lobbying effort. They hired Creative Response Concepts, a company you probably haven't heard of. One of their campaigns that got some attention in 2004 was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that engaged in character assassination of then presidential candidate John Kerry. Plus AT&T said it would not invest in creating more jobs in Michigan if the franchise agreements were left in place. So, when you put together lots of money, a slick PR campaign run by notorious lobbyists, and top it off with a no job creation threat, you can see why the state legislators caved in on this one.

Now back to Comcast advertising. Recently this cable giant has run ads referring to their services as "Comcastic," but what we don't tend to know is that while Comcast has monopolized the cable market they are free to jack up your cable rates. On top of that, their monopoly size allows them to collaborate with other big media companies to take control of even more of our means of communication, so that they can decide what information can shared and who has access to what. This isn't China Jeff, Comcast can't do that...actually, they can, and they are. Right now, Comcast is under investigation by the FCC for blocking users ability to use peer-to-peer software to share information with one another. Comcast was using Web filtering technologies similar to those used in China to censor the Internet. The Associated Press called the violation "the most drastic example yet of data discrimination." If you want to do something about this go to StopBigMedia.com and take action against Comcast.

While you are at it, drop your subscription to Comcast and do something else besides sitting on the couch. Make your own media for instance. A good start would be to enter a local video contest in which the winner will be decided on March 15. This contest is for anyone who makes an anti-war video that is 60 seconds or less. You can contact me for details jsmith [ @ ] mediamouse.org. Make love, not war, and tell Comcast to take a hike.

( categories: Comcast | MICHIGAN | State Franchises )