Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Comcast's Christmas Present To Nonprofits

It won't come as a surprise to many when, later this month, the Federal Communications Commission approves Comcast's plan to buy NBC Universal and the 10 local affiliates that the network owns.

But when the order comes out, look for a late Christmas present from Comcast: As first reported by The New York Times, the cable giant will lay out an ambitious plan to partner with nonprofit news organizations in at least five communities in which NBC owns stations (see the list below) for at least three years.

In a letter to the FCC sent two days before Christmas, Comcast spelled out some of the details of its plan. The partnerships, Comcast said, would include "story development, sharing of news footage and other content resources, financial support, in-kind contributions, shared use of technical facilities and personnel, on-air opportunities, promotional assistance, and cross-linking/embedding of websites."

Notably absent was any formal commitment of financial resources. But those kinds of specifics are likely to be forthcoming, assuming the FCC approves the deal. As Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice told me Tuesday evening: "Look for the order when it comes out. There will probably more detail in there."

The partnerships are an attempt to respond to the hollowing out of local TV newsrooms as the broadcast affiliate model continues to crumble. Comcast says it is committed to "hyperlocalism," which it defines as "local news, local public affairs, and other public interest programming," and to providing "free, over-the-air broadcast service" through the 10 NBC-owned affiliates.

The letter goes on to explain that the partnerships would be modeled after the working relationship between nonprofit and KNSD, the NBC-owned affiliate in San Diego. That partnership began as an informal sharing agreement in 2006 and since has grown to include some financial support from KNSD, as Scott Lewis, CEO of, explains in an interview with Investigative News Network.

Lewis is cautiously optimistic about what could develop. The arrangement with KNSD works so well, he said, because it is built on relationships and trust that have evolved over time. And he notes that while the model cannot be thrust on unwilling or uninterested parties, it certainly can be replicated by those who see its potential.

"By investing in it, if it worked, it could be a mutually beneficial innovation," Lewis told me in an email. "Public gets better more in-depth stories and fact checks on local news like the ones we help with. And NBC is able to make it at least pay for itself. And then groups like ours can have it as part of their portfolio of distributors for our content, which is then just one part of our revenue portfolio."

Indeed, there is precedent for cooperation beyond San Diego. Texas Tribune, for example, has cooperated with KHOU in Houston, lending out its reporters to discuss public affairs stories. And in the print arena, ProPublica has established relationships with newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. As Lewis notes, the key for nonprofits is getting partners to see the value in supporting the nonprofit as a community asset.

Whether Comcast will commit real resources to the partnerships remains to be seen, but indications are that it will -- if only because it must do so to win FCC approval of its NBC deal. Some data points:

* Through its Future of Media initiative, the FCC has expressed a strong interest in fostering new models for underwriting public-affairs journalism.
* Notably, it was the FCC -- not Comcast -- that contacted Lewis to learn about the relationship with KNSD.
* The Dec. 23 letter from Comcast lays out a detailed plan for reporting to the FCC every six months for three years on how well the partnerships are faring -- not the kind work most companies take on unless they have to.

Does it matter whether it took some nudging from the FCC for Comcast to recognize the gem of a partnership it will gain in San Diego? Or that as NBC's new owner, it can help build an innovative, private-sector response to the decline of local public affairs reporting? Not at all. A gift is a gift, regardless of any ulterior motive, and Comcast's offering could well become a model for others to emulate.


NBC owned and operated stations:
KNBC Los Angeles
KNSD San Diego
KNTV San Jose
KXAS Fort Worth
WCAU Philadelphia
WMAQ Chicago
WNBC New York
WRC Washington DC
WTVJ Miami
WVIT Hartford-New Haven


  1. Jim - I'm pretty skeptical about this promise from Comcast, and definitely don't think it alleviates the major concerns about this merger.

    You are right that it has taken a great deal of pressure from the FCC - and a year of work from public interest groups to get Comcast to budge on local news.

    But it is worth noting that although Comcast promised to increase news and public affairs programming by 1,000 additional hours a year that only works out to an extra 16 minutes per day, per station. We don't know if this new nonprofit partnership is just their way to fulfill that commitment or over and above those 1,000 hours.

    And thus far Comcast hasn't made one commitment to news and public affairs on Telemundo, abandoning Spanish speaking communities. This is not the first time Telemundo has been hurt by a media merger. in 2002 when NBCU was trying to buy Telemundo, it promised to expand local Spanish language news programming; but once the merger was approved, NBCU laid off 700 Telemundo employees and eliminated local newscasts at Telemundo stations in Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Jose and Phoenix, replacing them with a single “hubbed” newscast out of Fort Worth, Texas.

    Finally, Comcast has been making a lot of promises but resisting the FCC's efforts to turn them into enforceable rules. Promises were made to be broken. There are a wide range of other concerns with how this merger will reshape media in America online, on cable and over the air.

    I've written much more on this here:

    Disclosure: I have been running a campaign for the past year opposing the Comcast/NBC merger (

  2. Jim:

    This sounds like a neat offer from Comcast, and you're right that it doesn't matter that it is may be what Comcast sees as necessary to win FCC approval. But a press release and a binding agreement with financial commitments are very different. It makes me nervous when the Comcast spokesperson says, in effect, "trust me, it will be in the order." The FCC as a matter of transparency should release the final order enough days in advance of its vote so that the public can react to its precise terms. Will that happen?

    -- Bill Densmore / Media Giraffe Project
    UMass Amherst

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  4. Hi, I plan to organize a local, non-profit organization that involves fund-raising and other local activities. Earnings will be donated to local animal-shelters and tree-planting projects. There are about 50 of us, willing to run small stores and services for the organization. May I ask, is it necessary for us to ask for services and help when it comes to
    accounting? Nonprofit organizations need experts to monitor the flow of money, since it's crucial for the team's success but is it really ok? We are all new to this so no one is experienced enough to do the accounting themselves. A friend suggested the SAGE fundraising software - it apparently helps with the listing and organization of members, donors, and donations. It's great and all but I really don't know - what do you think?

  5. Verna, you should also research about the accounting software called 'QuickBooks'. Courses like Accounting majors lately been using the software as a medium for their classes and stuff so I think It's reliable.