Open Mic

Guest Blog: Hey Comcast NBCUniversal, Appearances DO Matter

Chuck Ross Posted May 16, 2011 at 12:59 AM

[Editor's Note: This is a guest blog by Norman Horowitz. Norman started in the TV business in 1956, when he was 24. He has been president of Worldwide Distribution for Columbia Pictures TV (Screen Gems); president of Polygram Television; and president of MGM/UA Telecommunications Co.]

By Norman Horowitz

I read recently that FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker will leave the Commission to join media giant Comcast as Senior VP of government affairs. Ms. Baker, who is a Republican, had voted just months ago in favor of the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger.

Here's why this should bother you a great deal.

Let me begin my explanation by using a hypothetical example.

First, the real stuff before the hypothetical. As a longtime studio executive, in my heyday it was my responsibility to deal with those people out there who were the actual creators and owners of content.

In the late 1970s, while at Columbia Pictures Television, I made a deal with Spelling Goldberg to acquire domestic distribution rights for "Charlie’s Angels," "Starsky and Hutch," "Family" and a few other series for $25 million.

So far this part of the example is all true. Now for the fiction: Let’s say a short time after the deal closed that I had resigned from Columbia in order to become an independent producer with Spelling Goldberg for a lot of money.

Would there have been anything inherently wrong with my doing that? No, not at all. But wouldn’t it have appeared to be very suspect?

Shouldn’t we all be uncomfortable with Baker being hired by Comcast when so recently she approved the Comcast/NBCUniversal deal, which is one of the biggest, most important media takeovers in recent years?

Probably no “rules” have been broken by Ms. Baker. However, there is something that I am uncomfortable with about the appointment.

Ms. Baker leaving the FCC and joining Comcast is, I suspect, no big deal to most. But it once again illustrates a too-close coziness between the regulators and the regulated.

Of course, I understand fully that of dozens of major media companies it is purely a coincidence that Ms. Baker has joined Comcast/NBCUniversal, a company to whom she has so recently granted a favorable ruling.

After all there are plenty of other media companies, such as Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News, CBS, Cox, Gannett, Clear Channel, Advance Publications, Tribune, McGraw-Hill, Hearst, the Washington Post Co.,The New York Times Co., E.W. Scripps Co., McClatchy, Freedom Communications, and Yahoo, all of whom, I am sure, were in deep discussions with Ms. Baker, along with Comcast. And, I’m sure I’m just being a yahoo for being so unreasonably suspicious to think that Ms. Baker’s recent decision approving the Comcast/NBCUniversal deal had anything whatsoever to do with Comcast hiring her.

All right, maybe not. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Comcast was very upfront in their overt recruitment conversations with Ms. Baker.

After all, Ms. Baker did not initiate the Comcast deal to take over NBC. She works for a government body to whom this deal was presented and she was one of people who decided whether it should be approved. She considered all of the arguments, did her due diligence to the best of her ability and decided that yes, with a few caveats, the deal should be approved.

The next day, or week, or month (whatever), she likely got a call from Comcast, asking her what her future plans were, knowing that she was soon leaving the government body where she is now working. She probably said something like, “I've got a few irons in the fire, why do you ask?” Comcast likely then said, “Come work for us. We thought you were very fair in your evaluation of our deal. We could use you on our team.” To which Ms. Baker finally agreed.

And, in case you missed it, Ms. Baker recently released this statement about her forthcoming new job: “I have not only complied with the legal and ethical laws, but I also have gone further. I have not participated or voted on any item, not just those related to Comcast or NBCUniversal, since entering discussions about an offer of potential employment.”

So why do I insist that Ms. Baker going to work for Comcast NBCUniversal is wrong?

Well, for one, given that multiple millions in future revenues were on the line for Comcast with the NBCUniversal deal (forgetting, for a minute, how much more powerful a company this makes Comcast in lots of other ways as well), doesn’t the hiring of Ms. Baker make it seem that it is at least possible that Comcast is somehow paying her off for her approving the NBCUniversal deal?

Please, please, both Ms. Baker and Comcast are far too honorable for this to be the case. Surely, we all agree, I’m just an old, cranky cynic who was raised with the crazy notion that if something has the appearance of smelling fishy one shouldn’t do it.

So don’t pay any attention to me when I suggest that Ms. Baker’s going to work for Comcast NBCUniversal says, once again--in a manner of speaking--to all regulators that if you cooperate with the regulated, you too can be rewarded with a great job.

Years ago there was a Broadway musical—and subsequent motion picture version—both called “1776." In it, John Adams laments, in song, what I am attempting to lament here:

Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?#