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Former FCC Commissioner Warns About Comcast-Time Warner Merger, "Mindless" Media Consolidation

StoryFebruary 17, 2014
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Michael Copps

former member of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2011. He now leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.

Comcast has announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable at a cost of more than $45 billion in stock. The takeover would allow Comcast to provide cable service to a third of American households and give it a virtual monopoly in 19 of the 20 largest media markets. While Comcast has claimed the deal will be "pro-consumer," the group Free Press warns the deal would be a "disaster" for consumers. Analysts predict Comcast will launch a lobbying blitz similar to when it won approval to take over NBCUniversal in 2011. Comcast has already hired FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who signed off on its NBC deal. We speak to another former FCC commissioner, Michael Copps. He now leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with the news that the nation’s two largest cable providers plan to merge. Comcast has announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable at a cost of more than $45 billion in stock. The takeover would allow Comcast to provide cable service to a third of American households and give it a virtual monopoly in 19 of the 20 largest media markets.

Consumer groups say they’ll oppose the deal. Free Press said, quote, "In an already uncompetitive market with high prices that keep going up and up, a merger of the two biggest cable companies should be unthinkable. This deal would be a disaster for consumers and must be stopped," Free Press said. But Comcast CEO Brian Roberts appeared on CNBC and praised the deal as "pro-competitive" and "pro-consumer."

BRIAN ROBERTS: We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. It’s a really special transaction for both Time Warner Cable and for Comcast—shareholders, our employees, and mostly our customers. The deal is pro-competitive. It’s pro-consumer. We’re going to be able to bring better products, faster Internet, more channels, on-demand, TV everywhere, and a national local platform that’s really special. So, we’re optimistic we can get this approved.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Michael Copps, member of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2011, now leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause.

Michael Copps, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this—well, still it’s a possible merger; it’s not a done deal.

MICHAEL COPPS: Good morning, Amy. It’s great to be with you again.

This is just such a far-reaching deal, it should be dead on arrival when it gets to the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission for approval. This is the whole shooting match. It’s broadband. It’s broadcast. It’s content. It’s distribution. It’s the medium and the message. It’s telecom, and it’s media, too. And it just would confer a degree of control over our news and information infrastructure that no company should be allowed to have. And all of this is happening in a market where consumer prices are going up and up and up, and competition is going down, down, down.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Comcast just bought NBCUniversal. Explain how this works.

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, it works because of a combination of private-sector consolidation that we’ve seen for 15 or 20 years now with this long cycle of approvals by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice blessing all of—all of these deals. So, you’re right. Comcast just got through absorbing NBCUniversal last year, and now it’s got enough money to go out and buy the second-largest cable company in the United States of America. You know, they might think it’s good, and it is good for business, but what this amounts to really is the cable-ization of the Internet. And if we who are reposing so much confidence in the Internet to create opportunity in this country, to open the doors of opportunity to everybody, are going to allow the Internet to be cable-ized and to be controlled by a few gatekeepers, who not only do the distribution, but control the content and can block websites, we are just doing irreparable damage to the opportunity-creating potential of broadband and the Internet.

AMY GOODMAN: Analysts predict Comcast will launch a lobbying blitz similar to one when it won approval of the takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. It’s already hired FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who signed off on its NBC deal.

MICHAEL COPPS: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Your colleague. Meanwhile, the news website Republic Report has revealed at least two of the officials who oversee antitrust enforcement have close ties to Comcast. The head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, William Baer, was a lawyer representing NBC in its push for the merger with Comcast. And Maureen Ohlhausen, one of four commissioners on the Federal Trade Commission, provided legal counsel for Comcast as an attorney just before joining the commission. Michael Copps?

MICHAEL COPPS: You don’t need an analyst, and you don’t need a prediction to that, that lobbying team. Wheelbarrows full of money, legions of lobbyists are at work on this. Our society right now is controlled more by money, I think, than in any era since the notorious Gilded Age back at the end of the 19th century. What we all need to realize in this country is if there’s—there’s never going to be democracy now until we have media democracy now, and we’re not going to get media democracy now until we put the brakes on this mindless consolidation we’ve been going through for the last 15 or 20 years, and put the Federal Communications Commission back in the business of protecting the public interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I mean, this is different from other mergers, because these are media organizations, so, yes, they’re hiring all the very powerful lobbyists, but they’ve got networks. I mean, watching MSNBC—

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —the day this was announced, they were hailing this from top to bottom. Of course, they’re all going to be employed by him.

MICHAEL COPPS: That’s right. This is content and distribution. This is the John D. Rockefeller recipe for monopoly control. You’ve got the whole thing, when you’re controlling the programs, designing the programs and distributing them, or deciding whether they’re not going to be distributed. When you have the power to block a little website or to block Democracy Now!, you’re in control of the civic dialogue of this country. And we have already gone to dangerous places with the civic dialogue in our country, because we don’t have the news and information that we used to have, we don’t have the journalism we used to have. And a lot of that is because of this consolidation and because of the FCC being absent without leave from its public-interest oversight capacities. This will be a good test to see if that new FCC can really begin to represent the common good.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democratic Senator Al Franken. He was with CNN’s Jake Tapper on a very cold last Thursday in Washington. Inexplicably, they were standing outside. Comcast has already—Franken said Comcast has already failed to comply with conditions it agreed to in its purchase of NBCUniversal.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: CNN is a cable network news.

JAKE TAPPER: Yes, cable, cable network.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: It’s what it is.


SEN. AL FRANKEN: OK. There’s a thing called neighborhooding. You know what that is, right? That—well, it means that CNN and MSNBC and Fox News—

JAKE TAPPER: Put them all near each other.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: All near each other. Well, they were supposed to put Bloomberg in the same neighborhood, but because Bloomberg competes with CNBC, which is a financial news network, Comcast didn’t comply with that. And they finally had to be ordered to do that. But they fought it, tooth and nail.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Democratic Senator Al Franken. Michael Copps, your response? And since we only have this last 45 seconds, also talk about the current FCC law to require sponsorship disclosure of political ads.

MICHAEL COPPS: Well, this is really important. You know, Congress is not going to pass any act helping us reform the role of big money in politics. But there exists right now at the Federal Communications Commission, since the 1920s, sponsorship identification laws which require not just commercial, but political sponsors to divulge who’s really paying for these ads. So when you see an ad saying, "Brought to you by Citizens for Purple Mountain Majesties and Amber Waves of Grain," you don’t have a clue who that is. It might be a chemical company dumping sludge into the Great Lakes. Section 317 should be employed to demand the names of the people who are really behind that ad. The FCC can do that itself. It can update these rules that have been on the books for ages. And we can begin to have some political money reform in this country. We can shine some sunshine on who’s sponsoring these ads.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Copps, we want to thank you for being with us, former member of the Federal Communications Commission for more than a year. He was the seventh-longest-serving FCC commissioner in the agency’s history.

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