Post Tech: Franken presses Holder on Comcast-NBC merger

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; 10:28 AM

During Senate grilling Wednesday on the promised closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Attorney General Eric Holder also received some heat from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) on the Comcast-NBC Universal merger.

Franken, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken skeptics of the mega media union, used a judiciary hearing to also press Holder on the review of the merger, which is underway, and pressed him to think of how the merger could lead to more consolidation among cable and Internet service providers and media giants like NBC Universal.

"If this goes through, are we going to have a situation where Verizon and AT&T see the need to buy networks and studios? And are we going to get all our information -- because Comcast is the largest cable provider and the third-largest Internet provider -- are we going to -- are we going to be seeing a situation where five companies are controlling all the information that we get?" Franken asked. "And I think that's a very dangerous situation."

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has promised lawmakers and regulators in hearings and written commitments that it won't favor its own content after the merger and would abide by program access rules that mandate the company share its shows with competitors.

But as Franken has in previous hearings, he noted that when syndication rules were relaxed in 1993, the media industry consolidated and companies began favoring their own shows, to the detriment of consumers. He said he could see the same results with Comcast's merger with NBC Universal, where the cable and internet giant would favor its own greatly expanded library of NBC shows and movies over those of competitors.

"Now, this is -- what we're seeing with Comcast is that Comcast is -- yes, it's a vertical integration, but it's also horizontal, because they both have sports programming that anybody who's carrying -- has a cable network has to carry, and would be really in bad shape if they don't," Franken said. "How does the Department of Justice determine whether a merger is horizontal or vertical, or both? And how does that impact the department's analysis of this merger?"

Holder towed a cautious line, deferring twice to his antitrust chief, Christine Varney, who he said would be vigilant about enforcing antitrust violations. The Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission are conducting separate reviews of the merger.

And he wouldn't budge on Justice's review, except in a lighthearted exchange about -- his cable bill.

"This is something that affects people in ways they don't understand -- I mean, this is ... your cable bill," Franken said.

Holder then replied: "Well, now I care. I'm a Comcast subscriber. And the fact that you point out it could have an impact on my cable bill has awakened. ... You've got the A.G. more interested than I was going into this."

"I knew I could reach you somehow," Franken said to laughter.

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