UPDATE 1-Comcast-NBCU deal would create minority networks
* Comcast inks diversity plans ahead of merger decision
* Would add new channels for African-, Asian-Americans (Adds support for merger from Rep. Hank Johnson, public interest group opposition to deal)
By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) will offer new programming targeted at African- and Asian-Americans if it is allowed to buy a majority stake in General Electric Co's (GE.N) NBC Universal, the company announced this week in agreements with civil rights groups.
The decision to boost diversity efforts comes as the company awaits approval from the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission for its proposed merger, which would create a combined broadcast, cable, movie studio and theme parks business.
Public interest groups have urged the Obama administration to reject the deal. They fear Comcast might charge other cable distributors higher fees to transmit NBC Universal-owned content, leading to higher cable bills, fewer independent programming choices and less competition.
Comcast said in agreements filed with the FCC that it would add four new cable networks either owned or partly owned by African-Americans within eight years if the deal goes through.
It would also expand an existing channel carrying Asian-American programming to more markets, or create a new English-language channel that caters to Asian-American interests.
In a letter to the FCC, the Reverend Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders said the joint venture between Comcast and NBCU would spur diversity "by increasing the participation of minorities in its news and public affairs programming and enhancing opportunities for minorities within its writing staff."
Rep. Hank Johnson, chairman of the House of Representatives antitrust subcommittee, wrote to the FCC on Dec. 17 in support of the venture.
"I believe the parties have satisfactorily demonstrated that the proposed transaction will not undermine competition in the media and telecommunications industry," said Johnson. "I am reassured by my own rigorous examination of the proposal and the parties' stated commitments to the interests of the American consumer."
Johnson's campaign received $5,000 from Comcast in the 2010 election cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
An agreement was signed by Comcast and NBCU executives and civil rights groups including the NAACP, National Urban League and National Action Network, according to a memorandum of understanding between the groups and Comcast.
A separate agreement was signed by the Asian American Justice Center, East West Players, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Organization of Chinese Americans, and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.
Both agreements call for increasing minority representation in all levels of the combined company's corporate structure and creating diversity councils to advise senior executives on diversity initiatives.
Representative Henry Waxman, head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, earlier in the month urged the FCC to complete its review of the Comcast-NBCU merger by the end of the year.
Time is running short to do this as the FCC tackles controversial Internet traffic rules next week, and the holidays will likely see many officials leave town. (Reporting by Jasmin Melvin and Diane Bartz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and John Wallace)
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