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Comcast-NBC merger nears, questions begin

Comcast is set to launch a massive merger with NBC Universal after NBC's minority owner, French conglomerate Vivendi, worked out a deal to unload its 20 percent stake in the company.


Vivendi's agreement to sell that chunk of NBC Universal -- itself the product of previous media mergers -- for $5.8 billion back to majority owner GE could result in a Comcast-NBC deal being announced Thursday, the New York Times reported. The transaction would value the New York film and TV company at $30 billion; Philadelphia-based Comcast would at first own 51 percent of it, then more as GE continued to reduce its stake.

Will such a union work for these companies and for their customers? That's a little hard to say.

On a corporate level, Comcast -- which in 2004 tried and failed to buy Walt Disney -- is betting that this merger will fare better than, well, pretty much every other media mega-merger. The disastrous AOL-Time Warner marriage, due to be dissolved Dec. 9 with a spinoff of the newly rebranded "Aol.," comes to mind, but there are plenty of other examples -- like, say, GE and Vivendi's misadventures with NBC.

For consumers, the picture is even fuzzier. Just consider two conflicting reads on the deal in today's papers.

In one, the NYT suggests that Comcast would use its influence to push the movie studios into a more flexible, sensible distribution arrangement, something many home viewers have been requesting for years:

It could use its power in film, with Universal Studios, to expand video-on-demand offerings by altering movie release windows to make movies available on demand the same day they are released on DVD, noted Craig Moffett, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

In another, the Los Angeles Times interprets the deal as a move by Comcast to control online viewing of the TV shows and movies it provides over its own wires:

Comcast has long wanted to control more of the entertainment that flows through its wires into subscribers' homes. Its desire to get a lock on content, and influence whether TV shows and movies will be offered free over the Internet, have been key factors driving its interest in NBC Universal. Comcast traditionally has acted as a bundler of television channels and broadband Internet services.

Critics of media consolidation have already voiced their opposition to the potential merger -- one, the Free Press, has already set up a site to denounce it, complete with a graphic of Comcast's "C" logo chomping on the NBC peacock.

(Disclosure: I've been interviewed on MSNBC a few times and, as per an arrangement with The Post and that network, have been paid a few extra bucks for my time.)

All these questions ensure any Comcast-NBC deal will face some sustained regulatory scrutiny, as my colleague Cecilia Kang reported last week.

Two things in particular may determine what the Feds have to say about this deal: Comcast's plans for Hulu and TV Everywhere.

The former, as I trust many of you know, is a site that provides full-length streaming episodes of new and older TV programs for free, and with fewer ads than you'd watch on TV. NBC Universal owns part of it; will Comcast use its newfound influence to clamp down on Hulu's selection of programming?

The latter is a project undertaken by Comcast and Time Warner to make more of their programming available online to viewers who already subscribe to a TV service, either their own or that of a competitor. (See NewTeeVee's brief summary of the concept, Ars Technica's critique of it or Advertising Age's more detailed look at its revenue model.) That catch is, if you, like me, don't subscribe to somebody's TV service you can't buy into TV Everywhere on your own. Will Comcast stick to the plan to tell individual viewers that their money's no good?

Add in the fact that Comcast doesn't exactly have the best reputation among subscribers, and you can count on an interesting fall and winter for the company as it tries to pursue this deal.

What's your take on a Comcast-NBC merger: Comcastic, or catastrophic? The comments are yours ...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 1, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , TV , Telecom  
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the idea, while not surprising, that the Comcast oligopoly has the resources to buy Disney, or now NBC, is outrageous. Comcast, don't tell me about usage caps& meter's because your network cannot handle your customer's traffic! And stop raising my rates every year, charging excessive fees, & spending little for non-technical csr's!

Posted by: Max231 | December 1, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

As a non-cable-user, it seems to me that this is an opportunity for Comcast to crush more over-the-air broadcasting.

Last night's Monday-night-football game wasn't available over-the-air. Neither was the NLCS this year (or the ALCS next year).

I hope that the FCC will consider the antitrust implications of this merger.

Posted by: jaepstein63 | December 1, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Its 9-11 all over again.

CAN WE DO IT !!!!!!!!!!

YES WE CAN !!!!!!!!!!!!

YES WE WILL !!!!!!!!!

Posted by: | December 2, 2009 12:31 AM | Report abuse

If the decision by Comcast to force DirecTV to remove the Versus Channel from their lineup is any indication then this merger is definitely bad news for satellite and other cable company subscribers.

The current trends in media consolidation simply aren't in the best interest of consumers, media and the dissemination of information.

Posted by: pamlyn | December 2, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

It is certain that whatever Comcast's true plan is, it will involve making sure that NBC/Univeral content is only available via Comcast's network, and that consumers are forced to pay more money in the end for that content. This will not likely be a positive outlook for users of Netflix, Redbox, DirecTV, Dish Network, Hulu, etc. etc. etc. (Of course, people who get their stuff from torrent sites will not be affected at all).

Posted by: boboran | December 3, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

The big question for me will be how the fued between Comcast and DirecTV over Versus will play out. While fans of most programs aired on VS can find them elsewhere, those of us who follow cycling have been left to follow races online (and not live).

Preventing a good chunk of the American public from viewing the Tour de France is un-American, IMO, especially now that Lance is back in the mix of things. (Yes, I know I'm a minority in that most peeps view cycling as a kids activity, but cycling 2000+ miles over 21 days? Yeah, let's see you try it.)

Any thoughts on that spectacle, Rob?

Posted by: SamFelis | December 3, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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