Comcast-NBC Universal merger gains support in FCC
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 8:18 PM
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday said he would vote to approve the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal as long as certain conditions were met, a significant step toward the formation of a new Internet and media powerhouse.
Julius Genachowski issued a draft order of approval for the merger on the condition the companies promise to share TV shows not only with competing cable and telecom services but also to some extent with new Web platforms, such as Apple TV and Netflix, that want to offer television over the Internet.
The order was circulated to the other four members of the FCC for consideration, with the agency likely to vote in January.
The Justice Department, which is conducting a separate antitrust review of the deal, hasn't indicated its position. But a source familiar with the agency's thinking said the companies haven't satisfied concerns about how the deal might affect competition, particularly in the evolving industry of Internet television.
Observers said the companies, eager for approval after a year-long review, want to alleviate those concerns with specific commitments to preserve competition. They say the deal will probably be approved by both agencies, allowing the industry giants to create a media titan that can reach Americans through television sets, smartphones and computers.
Together, the companies have 16.7 million broadband subscribers, about 23 million cable customers and a vast library of popular shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Office."
Comcast said it has no incentive to withhold shows from competitors or block rival programs from getting to its customers because doing so would be bad for business. The company has agreed to a number of conditions to appease regulators, saying it would operate fairly as both the owner of television content and a distributor of those shows.
"Starting on the day of the deal's announcement, we have emphasized that this transaction is pro-competitive, pro-consumer, and will deliver real public interest benefits," Comcast's executive vice president, David Cohen, wrote in a blog after the FCC's announcement.
The merger has been opposed by consumer interest groups, competing cable and broadcast companies, online television distributors, and some lawmakers who say the merged company might wield too much influence over the fast-evolving Internet and media industries.
"It's hard to imagine how a cable giant like Comcast owning a content empire like NBC Universal could be a plus for consumers' pocketbooks and competition," said Parul Desai of Consumers Union. "Since the FCC is likely to approve the deal, it must take seriously obligations to protect the public interest and adopt strict and enforceable conditions."
The FCC's probe focused on a broadly interpreted mandate of ensuring that the union is in the public interest. As such, Comcast has agreed to promote independent programming and diversity in media.
FCC senior officials said in a press briefing Thursday that the agency found the merger was in the public interest but had five areas of concern: sharing content with other cable and telecom companies, blocking content to its own subscribers, sharing shows with Internet television companies, broadcast obligations, and other concerns such as diversity in media.