Lawmakers grill Comcast chief about NBC Uni

WGAW president John Wells expresses concerns over deal

Lawmakers in Washington on Thursday again grilled Comcast CEO Brian Roberts over plans by the cabler to acquire a majority stake in NBC Universal, and this time WGA West president John Wells was there to disparage the proposal.

Distressed over the prospect that the acquisition would create a "new media superpower," Wells proposed strict concessions be agreed on before the deal is approved, including that a Comcast-NBC Uni "be required to allocate 25% of primetime programming on its broadcast and cable networks to independent programming."

Wells also said local news and public broadcasting "be preserved" and that Comcast be "required to promote these programs through subsidized advertising campaigns."

He also was disturbed that a Comcast-NBC Uni would shut down free online access to NBC shows at sites like Hulu and others, which he posited would result in decreased residual payments for the 8,000 writers he represents. Wells also demanded a commitment to Net neutrality so that heavy users of the Internet wouldn't have to pay more, or suffer slower speeds, compared with lighter Internet users.

"Comcast does not want to block any content over the Internet," Roberts countered.

Both the Justice Department and FCC need to approve the deal, and Christine Varney, DOJ assistant attorney general for antitrust, promised an extensive review. "I can assure you there is no rubber stamp," she said.

Some lawmakers suggested Comcast would show an anti-competitive preference for NBC Uni content if it controlled that company, though Roberts used a couple of real-world examples to refute the notion.

"If that was such an achievable objective, why did News Corp. get out of DirecTV and why did Time Warner spin off Time Warner Cable? Because it's such a competitive market," he said.

Therefore, he told the Senate Commerce Committee, he probably wouldn't have a problem if competitor TW Cable bought ABC or Dish Network bought CBS.

Roberts also reminded the assembled that GE was going to sell NBC Uni to someone, and a collateral advantage in selling to Comcast is that employees are likelier to keep their jobs because of a lack of duplicative businesses.

Some at the hearing switched gears, slightly, to retransmission agreements, and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski promised to review existing regulations. He expressed dismay that consumers would ever be "surprised" to lose their programming if they happen to be caught in the middle of a dispute between media companies.
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