Comcast-NBC Uni deal faces criticism

Concerns aired at latest congressional hearing

NEW YORK -- Representatives from the Independent Film & Television Alliance and the Communications Workers of America on Thursday sharply criticized the planned Comcast-NBC Universal deal.

But there also were some light moments during the latest congressional hearing in Washington examining the merger: NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker was asked about a similarity between him and Bob Costas and the cost of a haircut.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, IFTA president and CEO Jean Prewitt called for strong conditions to protect diversity of programming and voices.

If the deal goes through, "Comcast is able -- and apparently ready and willing -- to define a marketplace that is merely a closed system," effectively blocking out independent content from TV and digital delivery, she argued. "Now, as in the past, Congress and the regulatory agencies must make sure that a few media magnates do not determine what their fellow citizens can see and hear."

Regulators' green light for media mergers during the past 15 years has promoted uniformity, particularly cutting down the quality of children's programming, Prewitt said. "The public loses when they are limited to 'major conglomerate brands' and cross-promotable programming produced by the gatekeepers -- and are not exposed to the diversity and breadth that independent programmers offer."

When asked by a congressman if Comcast plans to shut out indies, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts replied: "That's definitely not the case." He said for his cable company's on-demand offers, his team has been seeking to strike as many content deals as possible.

Zucker also argued that no matter what the source, "we need the best programming" available, because "we need to do better on NBC."

Prewitt, though, said IFTA has learned that indies must often do deals with bigger studios to get access to sector biggies.

CWA president Larry Cohen, whose union represents workers at both Comcast and NBC Uni, also laid into Roberts and Zucker.

The proposed acquisition "likely will result in the loss of good jobs, the erosion of employee rights and undermine living standards in the communications and media industries," Cohen said. Roberts has said he expects no major layoffs.

But Cohen argued that the debt on the companies' balance sheet after the deal will mean the venture will be financially weaker. "As a result, the new entity will be under intense pressure to cut costs and jobs," he said. "This is an all too familiar pattern in the media sector."

In one of the lighter exchanges, a congressmen told Zucker he sounded "a lot like Bob Costas," or the other way around.

Zucker later was asked if he knows much about CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman." "I am not familiar with that program," he replied in a joking undertone, only to hear: "You should be!" Zucker then smiled and admitted: "I am."

In discussing fears of cable bill increases, one congressman mentioned that many things are more expensive these days, including haircuts. "I was not aware of the current prices of haircuts," Zucker quipped.