When Comcast Corp. assumes control of NBC Universal, the company will inherit a portfolio of news organizations, including a top-shelf network news division that dominates the competition. Powered by the "Today" show in the morning and "NBC Nightly News" in the evening, NBC News is one of the few bright spots at the broadcast network.
It's also one of the few aspects of the venture that will be largely new terrain for Comcast. Until now, the Philadelphia-based cable television operator's experience in news has been limited to running a handful of local television channels that produce newscasts, including the East Coast regional network CN8 until it shut down at the end of last year.
An amalgam of call-in public affairs programs, cooking shows and broadcasts of regional sporting events, CN8 once aired in 12 states from Maine to Virginia but was shut down because of low ratings, resulting in the loss of about 300 jobs.
The network was reconfigured into two smaller operations known as the Comcast Networks that serve Pennsylvania and the Maryland-Washington area. The channels carry programs such as "It's Your Call With Lynn Doyle," an interview show out of Philadelphia, and "Seeking Solutions With Suzanne," a seniors-oriented lifestyle show hosted by Suzanne Roberts, the 86-year-old mother of Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts.
Robert Zelnick, a veteran ABC News correspondent who teaches journalism at Boston University, said CN8 was a shoestring operation that seemed to have fewer resources than many local TV stations. Instead of sending a camera crew to interview a guest, the morning newscast often aired a still photo of the person while broadcasting audio of the interview, he said.
"Their coverage was not anything comparable to what you'd associate with a network," said Zelnick, who made about a dozen appearances on the channel when it had a presence in Boston. "If you consider NBC and CBS and ABC the major leagues and CNN and Fox triple-A, then this was A-ball or maybe B-ball."
Comcast executives compared CN8 to a public access channel and said it should not be taken as an indication of its commitment to NBC News.
"We actually think it's one of the crown jewels of the assets we're accruing," said Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, who also noted the value of NBC's 10 owned-and-operated local stations. "We have a strong commitment to preserving the iconic brand of NBC News."
Cohen said Comcast recently demonstrated its commitment to local news by taking full ownership of New England Cable News, a regional channel that it plans to invest more resources in, he said. But he acknowledged that the company does not have much experience overseeing news operations.
"It's an area where we don't have a substantial track record, and I think we need to be judged on what we say we're going to do," Cohen said. "We have a real commitment to journalistic independence and excellence. From our perspective, one of the exciting things about this transaction is that it puts us in a position where we can help to preserve and enrich the amount of local news and public affairs."
NBC News executives have been heartened by private conversations with Comcast executives in which they expressed admiration for the news division and pride that it would be part of the cable behemoth. While Comcast has not made any specific commitments about resources, NBC officials said the new owners are aware that the news division contributes to the overall bottom line of the company, buoyed by its profitable cable news network, MSNBC.
In fact, inside the news division, employees said they feel lucky that NBC was not purchased by a media company such as Time Warner or News Corp., which already has its own news networks and might have slashed staff.
"There's a lot of relief around here that it's Comcast," said one news executive who could not speak on the record because the deal has not yet cleared regulatory hurdles.
Still, the fact that Comcast will be taking over NBC makes opponents of media consolidation nervous.
"Their record is pretty thin, not because they are a bad company, but because they haven't made a lot of investments in journalism," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a nonprofit media reform organization that opposes the deal.
As part of a huge operation such as Comcast, reporters could feel pressure to be sensitive to the company's business interests, he said.
Media reform advocates point to one recent episode at CN8 as a potentially troubling sign. Last year the network fired Barry Nolan, a veteran television journalist who hosted a CN8 entertainment show called "Backstage," after he protested the decision by the Boston Emmys chapter to give Fox News host Bill O'Reilly its Governor's Award. At the ceremony, Nolan passed out fliers with examples of inflammatory comments by the cable commentator, saying he was not the appropriate recipient of a journalism award. He was fired for insubordination and is now suing the company.
"Suppose Bill O'Reilly complains to Roberts about Keith Olbermann or Brian Williams?" Nolan said in an interview. "What happens to them?"
Cohen declined to respond in detail because of the ongoing litigation, but said that Nolan was not fired because he spoke out about O'Reilly.
"Barry Nolan was not fired for expressing his opinion as a journalist or for anything he did or said on the air," the Comcast executive said. "He was fired for repeated violations of company's policies and rules and insubordination."
Cohen said Comcast will not seek to interfere with NBC News' coverage or curtail its independence, adding: "Professional journalists need to have the right to express their opinions without fear of correction or retribution from a corporate parent."