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Sen. Al Franken Questions Comcast's Handling of NBC Acquisition

On visits from his corporate superiors at Comcast
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The former comedian calls out Comcast in a new letter to the FCC and Dept. of Justice, accusing the company of not being fair to competitors in the wake of the initial 2009 deal.

In a letter to the FCC and Dept. of Justice,  Minnesota U.S. Senator and former comedian Al Franken suggests Comcast is not dealing fairly with competitors as promised.

Franken’s letter comes in the wake of a decision last week by the FCC to force Comcast to give better placement to the Bloomberg news channel on its cable systems. “I am pleased that the Commission finally acted on this complaint last week,” wrote Franken, “but I remain disappointed that this dispute languished before the Commission for more than ten months.”

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Noting Comcast has already said it plans to appeal the ruling concerning Bloomberg, and in light of other complaints from smaller companies and independent distributors, especially those who offer content over the internet, Franken said the failure to take prompt action becomes a tool for Comcast to use its size and power to control the distribution of content, which violates the agreement made at the time of the NBC deal.

“I am concerned that these sorts of delays always inure to the benefit of Comcast and give Comcast further incentive to challenge any aspect of its compliance with the merger order,” wrote Franken.   

“Comcast should not be permitted to relitigate every term of the merger order,” added Franken. “This will dissuade other companies from filing complaints with the Commission, and it will incentivize Comcast to continue to delay implementation of the order in the hopes that it will be able to renegotiate better terms.”

Before he entered politics and became a Senator n 2008, Franken enjoyed a career as a comedian, working on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Comcast responded on Monday that it “and NBCUniversal are fully complying with (indeed exceeding) the transaction orders,” which it agreed to at the time of the acquisition.

“The one complaint by an outside party regarding the NBCUniversal FCC Order has been brought by another very large media company, Bloomberg LLP – and it has been preliminarily adjudicated. We respectfully disagree with the Media Bureau’s interpretation believe the full Commission  will agree on appeal to enforce conditions as they were originally negotiated and intended.”

Franken also said he was “very concerned” about Comcast’s plans to exempt its Xfinity “on demand” service for the Xbox 360 from an agreement it made concerning a data cap for broadband service. Comcast, says Franken, contends it can treat this differently because it delivers the service over its own privately owned network, not over the Internet.

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“Your agencies were keenly aware that Comcast would have every incentive to violate net neutrality principles by prioritizing or advantaging its cable and video on demand service to the detriment of its OVD competitors,” wrote Franken, adding: “Even if this does not amount to a technical violation, it certainly raises serious questions about how Comcast will favor its own content and services to the detriment of its competitors.”

Franken said he was “very dismayed” to learn recently that Sony is re-considering whether to launch an Internet TV service because of concerns Comcast will impose data caps on competitors programming, which could raise the cost for consumers who use Comcast as their Internet service provider.

“If Comcast is able to impose restrictive data caps to the detriment of its competitors, I fear other companies like Sony will choose not to compete with Comcast,” said Franken. “This development is particularly worrying given recent press reports that Hulu is considering requiring consumers to subscribe to cable or satellite service in order to watch video on its site.”

Hulu is partly owned by NBC Universal, a division of Comcast, along with News Corp. and Disney and others.

“These announcements by Sony and Hulu,” concluded Franken, “only further demonstrate the need for your agencies to carefully review how Comcast is advantaging or prioritizing its own content to the detriment of online video competitors.”

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“Comcast’s On Demand service, a service used hundreds of millions of times by our customers every month for the past several years, is indisputably part of our Title VI cable service which is not subject to the FCC’s Open Internet Rules – and we are not aware of anyone who has taken a contrary view,” Comcast said in its response on Monday.  “When Comcast streams its own services over the open Internet (including XfinityTV.com or NBC.com), such streaming is subject to Comcast’s broadband Internet data usage standards.  But the Xfinity app for the X-Box does not stream content over the open Internet and is also part of our Title VI cable service.  As such, it is not subject to the FCC’s open internet rules.”