Welcoming our new Comcastic overlords

NBC Universal disappears into the cable goliath's maw. Let's hope the Internet isn't so easy to tame


Andrew Leonard
December 4, 2009 3:24AM (UTC)

If all goes as planned, Comcast, the nation's largest cable network, will buy NBC Universal from GE. The new entity will be a bigger entertainment/distribution monster than Disney, News Corp. or Time Warner. That sound you hear is the final nail getting hammered into the coffin containing the corpse of the traditional broadcast network's cultural primacy.

And none too soon! A few months back, after noticing my children's primary interface with the media universe was through their computers, I canceled cable in a fit of puritanical economizing. But not too long afterwards, desperate to watch SEC football on CBS, I bought a cheap digital converter box so I could get over-the-air broadcasts.

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Since then, I've felt like a time traveler/cultural anthropologist exploring the bizarre constraints of an artificially shrunken entertainment landscape. The world is a different, simpler place when there are only a handful of channels to choose from. For one thing, I suddenly encountered a stunning shortage of political pundits yapping with faux outrage over whatever's going on in Washington. This has been a balm and a blessing.

There's also much less stress, none of that "500 channels and nothing's on but I'm going to keep clicking until I find something" anxiety. Instead, on those rare occasions when I collapse back on the couch, I flip between the meager available options in just a few seconds and settle on the least objectionable affront to my sanity. I am reminded of being a child curled up in front of my Dad's brand new color TV on Friday nights 40 years ago, watching, along with another 30 or 40 million Americans, "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family." Hey! It's not as if we had a choice.

But the most obvious realization to be gained from this experiment is a visceral sense of how pathetic the fare offered by traditional broadcast media has become. Because nothing else could explain the one-hour Monday Night prime time special that I found myself returning to earlier this week, again and again, in awe at its sheer horrifying exploding car-crash awfulness: Heidi Klum presents the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show with the Black-Eyed Peas.

As the photographer introducing one of the models said happily: "And she's got REALLY BIG BREASTS!" I am not easily shocked -- but when I learned that CBS has been broadcasting this soft-core/advertorial for seven years I realized that I just hadn't been paying close enough attention to how the double whammy of cable television and the Internet had flat-out obliterated the gate-keeping primacy of the old broadcast networks. I mean, I knew this was true. But I didn't feel it in my gut, because I never stayed around long enough in the network ghetto before flipping away.

Which brings us back to Comcast. With delightfully oxymoronic phrasing, the Wall Street Journal tells us that analysts "hailed the agreement as a deal to form a new generation of media and entertainment conglomerate that can bolster its cable business and thrive amid the dizzying pace of technological change in communications wrought by the Internet, which has mired the industry in a painful slowdown."

Did you catch that part about the dizzying pace leading to a painful slowdown? If you aren't queasy yet, throw Heidi Klum, the Black-Eyed Peas, and a dozen scantily clad models into the mix. Please god, get me to the Internet ASAP, where I can escape this madness!

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But there's the rub. Cable and the Internet have expanded options. The immediate downside: the flagship networks have been reduced to such dire gambles as running Jay Leno every night for an hour in primetime or turning themselves into ongoing lingerie ads. Still, that's OK, because we have somewhere else to go. But when a Comcast buys an NBC Universal, acting in defense against the proliferation of consumer choice, the clear signal is that somehow, some way, the new masters of the universe will be looking for a way to make us pay.

For all those people who nod off whenever someone says the words "net neutrality" -- Comcast's ambition to control both the transmission methods and the content is exactly why we don't want the providers of Internet access to be able to charge customers according to what kinds of online services they consume. In this new configuration, it would be all too easy for Comcast to say that everything we own is free, but we'll charge you to get to Disney or TimeWarner or iTunes.

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And the day that someone tries to charge me a fee to see Victoria's Secret models dancing to Boom Boom Pow is the day that everything gets turned off.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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