FCC restarts Comcast, NBC Uni review

9:55 AM PST 07/13/2010 by Georg Szalai, AP

Decision on planned acquisition expected before year's end

NEW YORK - The FCC has restarted the clock on its review of the planned acquisition of a controlling stake in NBC Universal by cable giant Comcast Corp., for now leaving it on track to make a decision before year's end.

The government agency had recently stopped the review clock until the submission of additional materials by the companies.

Critics of the deal have also been trying to gain more time to argue their case by requesting certain deadline extensions, but for now observers say decisions by the FCC and the Department of Justice look to come around the end of the year. A Comcast spokeswoman Tuesday also reaffirmed that expectation.

Merger partners typically want to close a deal sooner rather than later to avoid investor and other insecurity.

After pausing its process on June 11 to collect additional information from Comcast and NBC Uni, the FCC said Tuesday it restarted its transaction review clock as of July 6. "As such, today, July 13, 2010, is day 45 under the time clock," it said.

The DOJ, which focuses on competition and marketplace concerns, works on its own timetable and doesn't have a clock like the FCC, which focuses on the public interest implications of deals. It typically finishes reviews a little before or -- as was the case in the News Corp.-DirecTV merger of late 2003 -- after the FCC.

A next big step in the deal review is the Aug. 5 end of the comment period. As part of the exploration, the FCC on Tuesday also held a public forum in Chicago -- where Comcast is also the big cable provider and would acquire an NBC and a Telemundo station -- to discuss the proposed mega-deal. As far as regulatory experts could remember, it was the first such forum since the AOL-Time Warner merger review.

A video message from FCC chairman Julius Genachowski started off the forum, which was Webcast. He promised to review possible damages to innovation and the risk of price increases and said his team is looking at similar past transactions, while also "closely" consulting with the DOJ.

"Because Comcast is one of Dish's main competitors in the video marketplace for both linear TV service and online video, Comcast has an incentive to steer subscribers to Comcast's cable service," Dish Network deputy general counsel Jeffrey Blum warned in a panel about the effect on the deal's online video space. "One of the most pernicious ways for them to do that is through their control over the broadband 'pipe' by discriminating against Dish's online offerings."

And Josh Silver, president and CEO of media reform group Free Press, told the audience that the deal needs conditions so stringent that it would no longer be appealing to Comcast.

In a second panel on distributor considerations with the likes of Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon and Brian Lawlor, the president-chairman of the NBC Television Affiliates and senior vp of television at E.W. Scripps, speakers expressed concern that Comcast could offer non-affiliated networks less-favorable carriage terms or use Comcast's power against NBC stations in network affiliation talks.

Free Press is part of the broad Coalition for Competition in the Media that has been the most vocal opposition to the Comcast-NBC Uni transaction. It also includes the likes of the WGA, the Media Access Project, Common Cause and Bloomberg LP, which is concerned about a competitive disadvantage for its Bloomberg TV service if Comcast controls CNBC.

The FCC update and forum came a day after Comcast and NBC Uni unveiled an agreement with indie program suppliers represented by IFTA and several days after the promise of a $20 million fund for minority entrepreneurs -- two nods to critics designed to reduce key concerns about the deal.
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