Doggone it, Franken doesn't like NBC-Comcast merger

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, February 5, 2010

NBC's worst nightmare came true Thursday -- the other, non-Conan nightmare -- when a former NBC on-air talent/producer turned senator went off on network and Comcast suits during a Senate hearing about the proposed merger of the two media behemoths.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) wasn't buying promises being spewed by execs of the network and the country's largest cable provider that the deal will be good for you and me.

"You'll have to excuse me if I don't trust these promises, and that is from experience in this business," said Franken, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights.

"I worked for NBC for many years. And what I know from my previous career has given me reason to be concerned -- let me rephrase that, very concerned -- about the potential merger of Comcast and NBC Universal," he said. "The media are our source of entertainment, but they're also the way we get our information about the world. So when the same company produces the programs and runs the pipes that bring us those programs, we have a reason to be nervous."

Franken was a writer and a regular on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" but, more to his point, starred in and produced an NBC prime-time sitcom called "LateLine," a "Nightline" spoof that lasted for about 19 episodes in the late 1990s.

(Franken played a vain reporter, and Robert Foxworth played "LateLine" anchor Pearce McKenzie. And, in one of those incredible coincidences that make covering TV so meaningful, one of the best episodes guest-starred Conan O'Brien, then host of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien.")

During Thursday's hearing about a proposed deal, in which Comcast would acquire majority control of General Electric-owned NBC Universal, Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts promised the distinguished subcommittee that the merger would "accelerate a truly amazing digital future for consumers" and create a "more creative and innovative company that will meet customer demands."

"Our success will stimulate our competitors to be more innovative, too. So this joint venture should be good for consumers, innovation and competition," Roberts said. Seriously.

Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal's chief executive, said: "Why is this transaction good for NBC Universal, for the U.S. economy and for the consumers we serve? My answer can be captured in two words: investment and innovation, both of which I believe are essential if we are to remain a vigorous competitor in the 21st-century media market and a growing source of high-wage jobs in an economy starved for employment."

Franken said that similar promises were made by NBC when the network was involved in the early 1990s in an effort to get rid of federal regulations that prohibited broadcast networks from owning most of the programming they put on the air. The result of losing the rules, he said, was the choking of the independent TV production community.

"Today, if an independent producer wants to get its show on a network's schedule, it's a routine practice for the network to demand at least part ownership of the show," Franken said. Before the senator formerly known as Stuart Smalley gave them the once-over, NBC and Comcast execs had been "grilled" on the merger at a House hearing in the morning.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), for instance, said he wanted to address "my friends at NBC," saying, "I have an opening for a constituent humorist specialist. If Conan would call my office, we could probably arrange to help you all out in any way we can possibly do that." He then yielded to the chairman, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), while Roberts and Zucker smirked.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D -Wash.), on the other hand, got tough: "We're here to talk about control of America's most precious asset, and that, of course, is Tina Fey."

Can someone explain to me why politicians become fawning serfs when they smell even the slightest whiff of Hollywood in the nation's capital?

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