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Al Franken: Trust me, you can't trust NBC

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) may not be an expert on antitrust law, but the showbiz veteran knows a thing about NBC Universal. And from his experience, there is little reason to trust NBC will keep any promises involving its proposed $30 billion merger with Comcast.

"I worked for NBC for many years," said the former Saturday Night Live star. "And what I know from my previous career has given me reason to be concerned—let me rephrase that, very concerned—about the potential merger of Comcast and NBC Universal."

Comcast and NBC have offered a number of public interest commitments as part of their media merger. Consumer groups say those commitments fall short of protecting the public from higher prices, less choice and competition.

Franken said he was concerned Comcast would withhold NBC content from competitors or prioritize those shows, programs and movies over that of others such as ABC or CBS.

"Let me start with something pretty basic: it matters who runs our media companies," Franken said. "The media are our source of entertainment, but they’re also the way we get our information about the world. So when the same company produces the programs and runs the pipes that bring us those programs, we have a reason to be nervous."

Here's some choice bits from his speech:

I was at NBC in the 1990s, when Financial Interest and Syndication rules—more commonly known as Fin-Syn--were relaxed and then essentially eliminated. Until then, Fin-Syn rules had prevented networks from owning more than a very small portion of the programs they aired. This was to prevent an inherent conflict of interest.

At that time, NBC executives testified that gutting Fin-Syn would not lead the network to favor its own programming. To the contrary, the NBC President declared, “It is in our self-interest to do everything we can to promote a strong independent production community.”

But by 1992, NBC was the single largest supplier of its own prime-time programming. Today, if an independent producer wants to get its show on a network’s schedule, it’s a routine practice for the network to demand at least part ownership of the show. This is completely contrary to what NBC and the other networks said they would do when they were trying to get Fin-Syn rescinded.

So while I commend NBCU and Comcast for making voluntary commitments as part of this merger, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t just trust their promises.

By Cecilia Kang  |  February 4, 2010; 3:46 PM ET
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