Comcast/NBC Universal and the Production Theory of Television

By Chelsea Perry

To the untrained eye, television is merely entertainment. At face value, viewers receive a storyline, character development, and plots and audiences get pure enjoyment from what they can clearly see on the screen. Many channel surfers, while watching television, do not take into consideration what it takes to fully put on the production. It does not cross the viewer’s mind that it took a multitude of people from different institutions to create the programs they sit and enjoy each and every day. The production theory of television looks further into the relationships that are cultivated behind the scenes; out of the viewer’s eyesight. The theory explains how the relationships made effect what is being seen on television. Production theory also dissects the balance of control that is given to each tier of power in a production and how that control can set the stage for the content of the show through personal choices, social mores, and contractual obligations.
One valuable example of production theory in the current news is that of the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. The acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast has raised the eyebrows of critics regarding worries of media consolidation in television. Comcast is treading in new production waters because the NBC Universal acquisition from GE goes against many of the current FCC laws forbidding the ownership of companies that span too wide of an audience. Ownership of the media plays a large role in the content and control that the crew, cast, and production companies have over their shows and the NBC/Comcast merger poses a threat to what many see as an already working equation.
To make the merger final, Comcast bought 51% of NBC Universal’s stock from General Electric, which makes it the new parent company (Memmott). Along with owning NBC, Comcast now has control over such entities as MSNBC, Bravo, Syfy, USA Network, and the Weather Channel (Flint). The reach of NBC Universal, and now Comcast, expands well past the realm of television and extends to motion pictures with the ownership of Universal Pictures (Flint). Since the joining of NBC and Universal, NBC Universal also owns Universal Parks in Orlando, Florida. The span of Comcast’s control over the media world has greatly expanded because of the acquisition of NBC Universal and all of its assets.
One of the major aspects of production theory is that of the relationships between crew, cast, networks, and institutions. The relationships that can affect the production can be as simple as the actor’s relationship to the director or as complex as the relationship between a social topic and the cultural mores of an area. The levels of analysis regarding relationships and interactions are defined in three different levels; macro analysis, micro analysis, and mid-range analysis. Each analysis level deals with a different aspect of production but all are easily overlapped into one another. Macro analysis deals with the big-picture. Essentially, macro analysis includes the relationships between networks and company ownerships. Another aspect of macro analysis is that of social culture and mores. When looking at macro analysis, one has to take into account “…particular socio-political, historical and culturally-specific contexts…” that could also affect the content that is being shown on the program (Chandler).  One thing that has to be kept in mind about macro analysis is that changes with the decades because the cultural themes which dominate a decade tend to change throughout time (O’Donnell 46).
Comcast has control of around 25 million cable, Internet, and telephone consumers in America, which makes it one of the largest and most competitive companies in that field (Flint).  NBC is one of the top networks on television. The merger of the two powers follows the path of media consolidation. Media consolidation can be grouped into the macro-level, or institutional level, of production theory. Essentially media consolidation refers to the joining of different mediums of media (BNET). In Comcast/NBC Universal, the two mediums are a cable/Internet provider and a cable network.
The fear associated with media consolidation is that of media bias which is not seen by the American audience. Viewers tend to take whatever is seen on television as mere fact without considering the morals and ethics of the parent company, which affects the content and viewpoints of the show or network. With one of the largest cable companies owning one of the most widely watched cable networks, the worries of favoritism and media bias from the parent company, Comcast, is a very tangible one. The FCC, or Federal Communications Commission, has to consider the media consolidation threat and judge whether it imposes upon the Sherman Anti-Trust Act that was set up by the US Congress in 1890 (Infoplease). The Sherman Anti-Trust Act ensures that no company can form an abusive monopoly over a certain good or service and the merger between to two such powerful companies could pose just such a threat (Infoplease).
Recently in the news, there have been rumors of Comcast acquiring a network called the RightNetwork that would supply very conservative news to viewers (Gavin). Often, this RightNetwork has been referred to as a television station for the newly developed, right wing, political movement called the Tea Party Movement. This rumor started when a “lookbook” from a RightNetwork show provided the names of its partners, Comcast being amongst them (Crooks and Liars). Since the revelation of this ‘lookbook’, it has been pulled down from the RightNetwork site and Comcast has released a statement saying that they are not involved with the RightNetwork and have “no partnership with this venture and have no plans to launch or distribute the network” (Khoury). This example demonstrates, though, how easy it is for big companies, such as Comcast, to get involved in the political arena possibly creating an immediate, behind-the-scenes political bias. A bias in a media company is extremely dangerous because of the widespread reach it has on it’s American, and world, audiences.
Micro analysis deals with the dynamics of a production on a more personal level then macro analysis. Micro analysis generally deals with single roles, like a director or an editor, and what can influence their input on the content of the program. Micro analysis can focus on things such as personal relationships or decisions an individual makes when dealing with things like time restraints and money constrictions; all which undoubtedly affect the outcome of a show. One example is a hypothesis that states that in the micro analysis of newsrooms, the relationships between workers “…are related to a person’s role in a news organization” (Berkowitz and Allen). So not only does micro analysis look at personal relationships between workers, it also observes how similar goals are also a motivating factor in the interactions.
The micro level of production can also be widely affected by the merger of the two companies. NBC Universal no longer is under GE control and has the new parent company of Comcast. Along with the switch in hands of power and control, comes a new set of company ethics and culture that all current employees need to adhere to, both in the creative and business aspect. Every company has a different culture and Comcast’s culture could be very different and distinct from the one GE had. NBC executives are already getting retrained in the ways of their company’s culture because of the change in authoritative power to Comcast. Execs for NBC were already in Philadelphia at one of Comcast’s headquarters learning about their new parent company’s culture (Gross).
With management being trained in a new company culture, the trickle-down affect of power and control could certainly change. Things such as program content could change due to things such as the brand loyalties that Comcast has and also the ethics that the company upholds. This could also affect personal relationships among staff members, which falls under the micro level of production theory. As petty as it sounds, within the bigger picture, the interpersonal relationships between cast and crewmembers, along with their relationships with higher-ups, can drastically change the content and feel of a show. If one section of the work force is unhappy, the workplace aesthetic is jeopardized which, in turn, can alter the substance of the show.
The final tier of production theory is called mid-range analysis. Mid-range analysis observes the structure of shows and how it affects the outcome of the content. Mid-range can look at topics such as programming tactics by networks to brand-loyalty and recognition.  Mid-range deals more with the organizational standards for television and how shows adhere to them. The NBC Universal/Comcast merger will also have a lasting affect on the mid-ranged level of production theory. As stated before, mid-range has to deal with the structure of shows and how it affects the content. Comcast is the new parent company of NBC Universal. Being a cable and Internet provider, Comcast could have an interest in both mediums and how to further interlace the two. Being one of the largest Internet providers, Comcast certainly has an interest in the online world. Having the ability to control the content of the Internet could be one of the largest driving forces behind the merger of the two companies. By owning one of the largest cable networks, with some of the most successful shows like The Office and 30 Rock, Comcast could make the online viewing of those shows a monopolistic market—only making it available to their subscribers.
This concern, of course, brings up the issue of net neutrality. Net neutrality is, essentially, a political argument that broadband providers should be kept separate, and thus unbiased, from their content so that the Internet can remain a public domain (UC Berkeley). In the case of the Comcast/NBC Universal merger, Comcast is the broadband provider and NBC Universal shows are their content. Another worry that deals with net neutrality and the merger is that Comcast could block different video streaming sites other then their own, which features NBC shows, so subscribers to Comcast would be forced to use the Comcast-run website. Another option that Comcast could use is that if their subscribers access an online video streaming site that isn’t run by Comcast, such as Netflix, that subscriber would see a hike in fees (Pergraro). Since Comcast has control over every step in the process of creating NBC Universal content, from the creative aspect to the delivery aspect, Comcast has vertically integrated their product and that supports the idea that Comcast could turn the NBC Universal content into a monopolistic market.
In recent news, Comcast has already entered the net neutrality battle and come out victorious. According to the New York Times, federal courts have ruled that Internet providers, Comcast included, can slow or even limit access to certain websites for their subscribers. Also, the court stated that video sites, such as YouTube, could be given an extra charge by Internet providers. This court’s ruling has set back the FCC in it’s fights to keep the Internet a neutral playing ground for it’s users and worries website hosts. Comcast actually spearheaded this court battle by claiming that it could have control over the speeds of their subscribers Internet to help curb illegal downloading from sites like BitTorrent. Now, because of this ruling, the FCC has to consider how to go about treating net neutrality. One solution, according to the New York Times article, is to reclassify broadband service as a basic utility, thus making it have stricter regulations; much like telephone lines do today. As a result of the court’s ruling in April, many opponents to the NBC Universal/Comcast merger have spoken out claiming that this victory could just further the gap between net neutrality and the Internet of the near future.
Another aspect of production theory is the observation of power roles. Along with delegating control to certain tiers of the production line, power is also given out to certain people and organizations. Power roles deal with how one person or institution negotiates with another to achieve the goal they want for their show. Power roles can come from within a shoot, from director to actor, or from a larger scale, like the FCC to a network. With power roles, there is a love and hate relationship between the levels of television workers and their respective networks because of the two different models they are coming from (O’Donnell 46). Television show creators usually come from the public sphere model, whereas they want to inform and educate the public. While on the flip side, networks have more of a marketplace model in that they are in it for the bottom-line profits.
Production theory, although not widely known about, plays an integral role in understanding the inner-workings of television. Knowing that behind the scenes there are decisions being made by people and institutions that can completely affect the outcome of the show adds a new, complex perspective that most viewers don’t consider. Having a general knowledge of production theory helps a viewer make sense of why certain decisions are made, which may, on face value, have made no sense at all.
One can find this particular theory in use throughout almost all aspects of television. If one looks at a show and investigates the inner-workings with the crew, cast, and companies it is involved with, the topics that production theory deals with are very relevant. The production theory also plays a role in larger institutions and their workings within the industry.
The positive side to this merger is that with the joining of the two companies the programs and information provided could be produced more efficiently and with better quality because of new level of information, funding, and technology that Comcast can bring to NBC Universal. The American public must be aware of the merger and the consequences, though. While the joining of the two companies will undoubtedly open up new financial and technological doors for NBC Universal, the media bias that could develop should also be considered. Amongst their subscribers, Comcast doesn’t have the highest reputation for the “best quality” cable that could be easily reflected onto NBC, which could then threaten the prestige that NBC has as a cable company (Pegraro). Also, one must look at the success level of large-scale merger’s that have happened in earlier years—for every successful venture there is about two flops, like the AOL-Time Warner fiasco, to counter them (Pegraro).
Knowing production theory, and everything it encompasses, it is easy to see how the theory could work into something like the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. Mainly, the connection can be made to the levels of production theory- those being micro, macro, and mid-ranged- and how the interaction between the new companies happens. Each level of production theory will be challenged because of the change in the hands of power and control over NBC Universal.
To be aware of the production theory and how integral the inner-workings of the three levels of television are is important for viewers to understand because of the large role that television plays in a majority of their day-to-day lives. The Comcast/NBC Universal merger could potentially change a great deal of components in the current NBC Universal production level equation to success, which has been serving them well for decades. The levels of production help the public understand more clearly how every aspect of the television-making process could be altered and how media bias could occur with such a large merger.
Works Cited
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