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Posted at 8:06 PM ET, 01/18/2011

Comcast and NBC: Did the Feds fold?

By Rob Pegoraro

It's on: Comcast and NBC now have the government's blessing to set up a joint venture, increasingly controlled by Comcast, that will bring the nation's largest TV and Internet provider and one of the biggest creators of video content under the same management.

As Cecilia Kang outlined on Post Tech earlier this afternoon, the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department imposed separate but overlapping conditions on this combination before approving it.


If you read only descriptions of these terms from the FCC (PDF) and the DoJ, you might think that the two government agencies have tightly constrained what this new company can do.

The Comcast blog post by executive vice president David Cohen offers a more detailed description, portraying these conditions as fair and outright magnanimous concessions.

Yet another perspective emerged from a conference call that the Philadelphia-based firm held for reporters this afternoon. Cohen summed things up thusly: "I don't think any of the conditions is particularly restrictive."

Just what did the feds get for their approval?

The least-meaningful conditions require Comcast to increase the diversity of the programming put out by the combined Comcast-NBC Universal venture -- more local news, more children's shows, more programming for Hispanic, African American and Asian American communities -- as well as adding room for more independent networks in its cable bundles.

Those are all nice things, but Comcast was willing to give them up from the start. You'll find this move on Page 1 of most corporate-merger playbooks.

Then come clauses about Comcast's Internet service. The company pledges to reach another 400,000 homes and offer a steeply discounted, $9.95/month plan for families with children eligible for free lunches in school under federal guidelines. It also will offer a standalone, no-TV-required broadband service with downloads of at least 6 million bits per second for $49.99 a month for three years, which Comcast said represented no change from the company's current practice.

As part of these Internet conditions, Comcast pledges to follow the basic net-neutrality rules enacted by the FCC in December -- as if a company in this position would say anything else. Cohen noted that this regulatory framework excludes services delivered over its private network, such as its digital voice-calling service, and called it "comfortable for us as a company."

This category contains one interesting bone thrown to the FCC: a pledge by Comcast to carry public-broadcasting stations at their current levels for "several years" if they elect to sell their spectrum back to the government under one possible provision of the FCC's national broadband plan.

Things get a little more interesting with provisions governing how Comcast will make NBC and Comcast programming available to other TV services. The FCC required an streamlined, binding-arbitration process to settle squabbles over what other TV providers should pay Comcast for its own channels, including the regional sports networks that have been the subject of numerous carriage disputes in recent years. That's a step forward.

But although the FCC requires that Comcast not punish other networks seeking carriage on its own service, it didn't require any new dispute-resolution mechanism to settle the inevitable disagreements.

Finally, what Cohen called "the most complex" provisions govern how Comcast-NBCU will provide its own content for online distribution. The FCC and the DoJ secured non-discrimination conditions that rule out the worst abuses but may not upset the existing economic order.

Here's why: Both of the possibilities outlined in these conditions, what Cohen called the "benchmark" and "full freight" scenarios, require mirroring earlier distribution deals. In the benchmark situation, a Web-only service that inked a deal with a defined competitor of Comcast-NBCU would get "comparable" NBC content on similar terms and conditions. The full-freight option wouldn't require another network to offer anything to an online firm, but that firm would have to buy Comcast-NBCU's entire channel lineup and pay about the same as a cable or satellite firm would.

In the bargain, Comcast has to give up any control over Hulu, although it will retain its ownership role in that site.

The benchmark option offers the best hope of making Web viewing a far more viable and more flexible replacement for cable and satellite service -- but only if one of Comcast-NBCU's competitors takes the first step. Telecom scholar and law professor Susan Crawford -- who in earlier writings on her blog described Comcast as an increasingly entrenched monopolist "with unconstrained pricing power" -- phrased things semi-optimistically in a post this afternoon:

If daylight opens -- if a big programmer is willing to abandon the cable cabal TVEverywhere scheme online -- that will provide the moment for the new competitors to get access to Comcast's good programming as well.

But incumbent firms here have done quite well under the current business model, and schemes like TV Everywhere -- in which video sites like Comcast's own Fancast Xfinity TV limit access to current cable customers, with no option for others to pay for Web-only viewing -- would only cement that arrangement.

The conditions are silent about such issues as NBC's blocking Google TV receivers from videos hosted on its site or allowing customers to choose what channels they'll pay for.

And don't forget that all of these conditions expire in seven years. Some vanish in three.

Could the FCC have done better? Probably not. The FCC's two Republican members, Robert M. McDowell and Meredth Attwell Baker, only grudgingly supported today's conditions, complaining (PDF) that they forced too many "far-reaching and non-merger specific policy concessions." And at a panel discussion I led at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, Baker, McDowell and Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn all expressed reluctance to wade deeper into regulating TV services.

Democratic member Michael J. Copps was the only one of five commissioners to vote against the joint venture, warning (PDF) that the deal "opens the door to the cable-ization of the open Internet."

I hope he's not right. But Comcast shareholders, in turn, need to hope this combination fares better than such earlier fusions of content and connectivity as the disastrous AOL-Time Warner marriage. And that may be a bigger and scarier unknown than any restrictions the Feds could have handed down.

Now I'd like to know what Comcast customers think: Are you happy with what the company's done with your money?

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 18, 2011; 8:06 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics, TV, Telecom, Video  
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Absolutely - I look forward to the great new content and expanded viewing options that I will have as a Comcast cable and internet access customer. The company is an innovator in its field, offering many cool new services, and this merger will allow them do more. This is a very good thing for consumers!

Posted by: walker2 | January 18, 2011 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I would not be surprised if NBC becomes the information agency of the US Government. They have played the role of media outlet / spokesperson of the White House and Capitol Hill and never question the government. MSNBC clearly pushes the Fed plan and cuts off anyone speaking against Fed policy. I do believe that they have had easier access to the White House also.

And wasn't it amazing how GE received a large infusion of capital with the banks to help "save it" during the financial crisis.

Hey...maybe I'm wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.

Posted by: edski1 | January 18, 2011 9:18 PM | Report abuse

The reality is that all the agonizing about potential service problems in the internet is focused on imaginary problems. There is a good chance that these problems will never be real issues. But even should some of them turn out to be real concerns, their impact will not be catastrophic. Particularly with the land line based internet we can afford to give private business a long leash to see what services they manage to create. We can afford to wait until there is hard evidence that a problem is real before worrying too much about need to control it with regulation.

Posted by: dnjake | January 18, 2011 9:43 PM | Report abuse

walker2 clearly works for Comcast - what a croc. Anyone who's ever had the misfortune of being a Comcast customer has had to suffer with horrible service and ever-rising prices. These are the guys who kept Nats fans from watching their hometown team for the better part of a season or more.

Really, do you think giving them more control over programming is going to be good for America and consumers? keep smoking whatever's in your pipe...

Posted by: KabletownSux | January 18, 2011 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Big money talks and we just had a chance to witness it again. Comcast is a poor service provider and many of their supposed HD broadcasts are not true HD. Their claims of good customer service are a myth in my area.

Posted by: npsilver | January 18, 2011 10:41 PM | Report abuse

What in Comcast's deep or near past provides comfort that the new entity controlled by Comcast will not use its market position to push the limits of the "agreement" and not monopolize markets, restrict access to content, and inflate rates to the detriment of consumers?

I was a Comcast (formerly Prism) TV subscriber when they divested their cell phone business in the ‘80s to "focus" on cable TV, and later internet service. As a consumer, our experience with Comcast has ranged from barely acceptable to incompetent; lowlighted by poor customer service, monopolistic pricing practices, and restricted access to content.

Over twenty years later not much has changed, other than their adding VoIP telephone service, which since the cut-over to all digital service in the spring has made their phone service almost unusable. “We’re still working out the issues.”

In the ‘90s we moved to satellite TV and DVR’s. We were pleased with the price point and service, only to find that Comcast refused to provide local coverage of Philadelphia Flyers, 76'ers, and Phillies broadcasts to competitor service providers. Comcast owns the Flyers and 76ers and holds the exclusive rights to Phillies broadcasts. As a result, we had to purchase duplicate Comcast TV service to see local sports broadcasts. Consumers in the entire Philadelphia and South Jersey areas were hostage to Comcast's refusal to distribute content it controlled. If there were a “corporate genome project” researchers would find these practices are Comcast’s corporate DNA, their corporate gene.

I sincerely hope "I told you so..." will not apply in the wake of this venture. How many TV channels and other forms of media content can sustain freedom based on hope?

Posted by: NormCIO | January 19, 2011 12:02 AM | Report abuse

It makes better sense to have NBCU owned by a company in the entertainment business rather than one that makes refrigerators and jet engines. Disney hasn't done so bad with ABC.

Posted by: CafeBeouf | January 19, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

"I would not be surprised if NBC becomes the information agency of the US Government. They have played the role of media outlet / spokesperson of the White House and Capitol Hill and never question the government. MSNBC clearly pushes the Fed plan and cuts off anyone speaking against Fed policy. I do believe that they have had easier access to the White House also."

Wow. Clearly you haven't watched the first ("newsy") half-hour of the Today Show in the last, say, 10 years. It has long favored conservative Republicans -- and it is the flagship of the NBC news division. Yes, MSNBC is generally liberal, at least in prime time, but it is a very small tail on a very large dog.

Posted by: Janine1 | January 19, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

In today's paper..."WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder's chief of staff is leaving to head a new Justice Department unit that will decide on discipline in cases of serious misconduct by the agency's career lawyers." One must wonder how honest Justice is if they need their own Unit just to weed out their own slime. How much to 'rent' a Justice or FCC monkey? :^)

Posted by: gunnysgt77 | January 19, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Time to find another service provider. Not interested in feeding the monopoly beast.

Posted by: Misty630 | January 19, 2011 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I can't stand dealing with Comcast. There's a reason they the Worst Company of the Year Award. If the choice is between no service and Comcast, I choose no service.

Posted by: getjiggly2 | January 19, 2011 7:01 PM | Report abuse

@Kabletown Sux. Hear! Hear! Probably a PR flack w/ a crawler looking for stories to plant comments, er...propaganda in. The WaPo got rid of Russian gangsters and PRC bots in the comments sections, but local commercial flacks still get through.

Posted by: featheredge99 | January 19, 2011 11:02 PM | Report abuse

Democrats prove their tradition of selling out to Big Business Monopoly has not died despite contradictory evidence as Clinton bowed out.

Posted by: epcraig | January 20, 2011 2:34 AM | Report abuse

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