Comcast's Meager Promises to Telemundo
It’s hard to imagine that NBC would ever broadcast just thirty minutes of local daily news on its network-owned stations in places like New York City and Chicago. That would simply be unacceptable.
But that’s exactly what NBC has done with the Telemundo stations it owns in our nation’s largest Latino markets, located in our nation’s largest cities, according to a study released this month by Free Press.
When NBC bought Telemundo in 2002, it pledged to the Federal Communications Commission that it would increase investment in Telemundo’s news programming. Instead, over the past decade NBC has gutted the Spanish-language network’s news operations, eliminating local news production in many communities.
Telemundo audiences are suffering from NBC’s past broken promises. Will history repeat itself now that the Comcast conglomerate acquired NBC-Universal and Telemundo in January? Or will Comcast use its vast resources to re-invest in Telemundo’s local news operations?
A dismal track record
Free Press’s report reviewed the amount of local news and public affairs programming that aired on NBC- and NBC-Telemundo-owned-and-operated stations during the first quarter of this year. It found that NBC’s English-language stations aired an average of four hours and 42 minutes of local news per day compared to just 48 minutes on Telemundo stations owned by NBC.
NBC’s local stations devoted about 20 percent of their weekly time to local programming; for the average Telemundo station, local programming made up less than 3 percent.
In New York and Chicago, NBC stations aired more than five hours of local news. That contrasts to only slightly more than thirty minutes for Telemundo.
In Los Angeles, the NBC station aired four hours of local programming; Telemundo, less than an hour. In Denver and Boston, Telemundo stations reported no local programming at all.
The Free Press report serves as a reminder about the dangers of media consolidation. Companies seeking to merge always tout the societal benefit of an informed community.
In 2002, NBC promised that the Telemundo network would receive the resources needed to compete locally as well as nationally with Univisión. Latino groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens were skeptical. They opposed the merger.
Their fears were validated in 2006 when NBC eliminated the local Telemundo newscasts in several cities in large Latino markets, such as Dallas, Houston, San Jose, Denver, Phoenix and San Antonio.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) called the cuts a “disservice to the Spanish-speaking community” that “undermine the principals of the First Amendment and the ability of local stations to “act as a watchdog for local government.”
A dismal future?
When Comcast bought NBC-Universal, it vowed, like NBC in years past, to reinvest in Telemundo. But the company is already sweeping those promises under the rug.
“Considering Comcast’s enormous resources, there is no reason why it couldn’t broaden local news coverage for all Telemundo stations,” says former NAHJ president Verónica Villafañe. “Now more than ever, the need is evident.”
Unlike in 2002, the national Latino civil rights groups endorsed the Comcast-NBCU deal. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Comcast that, while unenforceable, calls for increasing the participation of Latinos throughout the company’s corporate governance, programming, workforce, procurement and community investment efforts. It creates a Latino advisory committee that will meet for the first time this month.
However, Comcast’s promises regarding Telemundo’s news operations are marginal, at best. It now agrees to increase local news by 1,000 hours for the 10 stations that are NBC-owned, but made that same pledge for only six of the 15 Telemundo-owned stations, a pledge that was added only after groups such as Free Press and NAHJ criticized the cable giant for treating Spanish-language stations like country cousins.
The MOU promises “not to cut” local news for the remaining Telemundo stations – in effect, to continue doing nothing for local communities that aren’t being served. This is a far cry from Latino groups’ demands of NBC a decade ago.
The first order of business for the Latino advisory committee created by Comcast should be to call for local news parity for Telemundo with other NBC stations. It’s simply unacceptable for the committee to allow this offensive double standard to continue.
“The Latino community wants, deserves and depends on news and information from Spanish-language newscasts,” said a former Telemundo employee, adding that Comcast should increase local news for all Telemundo stations to the levels they were a decade ago.
A version of this column first appeared in Hispanic Link News Service.