Critics assail Comcast-NBCU merger plans

FCC comment period on deal ended Thursday

The war of words between Comcast Corp. and its critics flared up one more time Thursday as final responses during the FCC comment period for the largest U.S. cable firm's planned acquisition of NBC Universal were due.

Critics highlighted potential dangers of what would be the biggest media combination in a long time. Comcast once again argued the deal is pro-consumer, in the public interest and doesn't raise competition concerns.

"In many cases, the claimed harms are nothing more than preexisting or industry-wide grievances that commenters are improperly re-airing in this proceeding," the cable giant said about naysayers. "Many businesses and organizations who compete with or aim to extract unwarranted concessions from Comcast or NBCU are attempting to use the Commission's review process to foist unprecedented and onerous burdens on the combined entity."

But satellite TV giant DirecTV said Comcast hadn't addressed its concern that it could migrate NBC Uni programming to the Internet, on-demand or mobile platforms and "then deny it to competitors or restrict access for consumers." DirecTV is calling for regulatory remedies that it said "call for fair access to the same content at the same quality, the same speed, and the same time as Comcast makes available to itself."

The WGA, West told the FCC it would like to see a condition requiring the merged sector giant to devote at least 25% of its networks' primetime schedules to programs from independent producers. It also wants to see safeguards against Comcast's potential push of unaffiliated channels out of the basic cable tier. Such remedies would help "preserve fair competition and promote diversity of content sources," the writers guild argued.

The American Cable Association, which represents small cable firms, also called for conditions on the deal.

Meanwhile, Corie Wright, policy counsel of media reform nonprofit Free Press, said that Comcast has "failed to demonstrate that the benefits of the merger will outweigh its considerable harms."

"This merger will reduce competition, raise prices and harm the public," added Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America.

The two groups and the Media Access Project urged regulators to block the deal. They argued that as of Wednesday, 94% of 33,049 filings in the merger case had been filed by Free Press activists.

On a company blog, Comcast executive vp David Cohen countered: "Not surprisingly, a few perennial critics of entertainment and communications companies have made apocalyptic predictions, just like they've made for years and years."

He said the company is looking forward to the "completion of an expeditious review and approval before the end of the year" - a timeline Comcast has been sticking to.

And he cited figures of his own to support his optimism that the deal will pass regulatory muster.

"More than three-quarters of the video customers in the U.S. don't use Comcast, more than 80% of broadband users aren't Comcast customers, and only 1 out of 7 channels on a typical Comcast cable system will be affiliated in any way with Comcast-NBCU after the closing of the joint venture," he said.

Comcast also said that more than 1,000 comments in the deal comment period were supportive of the transaction, with more than 100 federal elected officials having weighed in with support.

Cohen's conclusion highlighted all the "real" benefits Comcast has promised if it gets approval to take a 51% stake in NBC Universal.

"It will bring about a reinvigoration of broadcasting through and infusion of new capital and energy into NBC," he said. "We've committed to additional local broadcast content. We've committed to launch new independent channels, including channels with majority ownership by African Americans and Hispanics. We've committed to accelerate the creation of the "anytime, anywhere" future with a wide array of high-quality content."

The American Cable Association, which represents small cable operators, suggested several conditions to keep the new industry giant "from using programming and distribution dominance to undermine competition by greatly escalating the price of cable and broadcast channels that market rivals, including ACA members, must purchase to remain in business."

Among the proposed conditions: Comcast-NBC Uni would be required to sell NBC stations and regional sports networks on a stand-alone basis rather than bundle them with carriage for any other network. And dispute resolution should happen through baseball-style commercial arbitration that should include a right to program carriage until the matter is resolved.

"The Comcast-NBCU joint venture is the most serious threat to the media ecosystem in at least a decade, justifying regulatory intervention to prevent the media giant from harming competitors and their subscribers through the exercise of undue market power obtained as a result of the deal," said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka said.