Sen. Kohl Probes NBC Universal on Olympics Web restrictions
Update: with comment from NBC Universal A key lawmaker raised concerns with NBC Universal about its apparent restriction of Olympics coverage online to only those viewers who subscribe to cable, satellite or other paid television services partnering with the network giant.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), who heads the Judiciary Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee, expressed his concerns in a letter Friday to NBC President Jeff Zucker that the practice could be a harbinger of how a merger between Comcast and NBC would affect the way television is viewed online.
“I fear that this practice of locking up certain content only for pay-TV subscribers may be a preview of what is to come with respect to TV programming shown on the Internet, particularly in the context of the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal merger,” Kohl wrote.
NBC Universal verified that some of its Olympics coverage can only be accessed by subscribers of paid television services. The subscribers of those partner services go through an authentication process to get certain Olympics video clips and other content.
The firm said other content is available for free over broadcast television and on other parts of its Web site. But to produce the content, the company needed the subscription model for online viewers.
"NBC has spent nearly one billion dollars to bring the Vancouver Olympics to U.S. fans. This three-part offering has been structured to provide the financial support to help justify that investment, and bring U.S. fans the high-quality, professionally produced content they demand," the company said in a statement.
In a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, lawmakers grilled Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Zucker about how the merger would ensure competing Web sites wouldn’t be unfairly deprived of media content. The merger would bring together the nation’s biggest cable and Internet service provider with a movie and television powerhouse with control over one out of every five hours of television content. Consumer groups have urged regulators reviewing the merger to consider the future of online video and how Comcast could unfairly use its leverage as a major distributor and owner of content to cut out new competition.
“This is an excellent letter and consumers will be glad to know there is a cop on the beat, protecting their interests as the federal government reviews one of the most important media mergers in a decade,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst at Consumers Union.
In the letter, Kohl said it appeared that users who wanted to access a portion of Olympic video content on NBC-owned Internet Web sites like NBCOlympics.com, had to first register with the Web site. And in order to register a viewer has to validate their subscription to a cable, satellite or service like FiOs by Verizon.
Kohl asked Zucker to answer the following questions:
-Does this policy of requiring a pay TV subscriber apply to content that is aired for free over-the-air on the broadcast network, and, if so, why?
-Why has NBC not sought to charge consumers directly for accessing Olympic content on its Internet Web site, rather than requiring a pay TV subscription?
-Has NBC received any payment from pay TV companies to support NBCOlympics.com? Has that influenced NBC’s requirement that consumers subscribe to a pay TV service?
He said the practice also hurt consumers.
“This requirement of being a pay TV subscriber leaves Olympic fans who do not have pay TV service, or who have service with (a) provider that has not partnered with NBC, in the dark with no way to view the sports events that they look forward to every four years at the Winter Olympics.”
February 26, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
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