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FCC seeking more merger data

Commission asks Hughes for exact subscriber figures

WASHINGTON — It may be just a formality, but the Federal Communications Commission wants a little more information from News Corp. and Hughes Electronics Corp., the parent company of DirecTV.

Observers expect the FCC to approve News Corp.’s bid to purchase roughly one-third of DirecTV before the end of the year. But the agency wants to make sure it considers all of the issues at stake before greenlighting a $6.6 billion deal that would hand News Corp. control of the largest satcaster.

Control issues

Critics of the merger and further consolidation of the media industry in general argue that the deal would hand News Corp./DirecTV too much leverage because of its control of popular sports programming and the Fox News Channel, making it easy to raise prices on cablers.

The FCC has asked Hughes to cough up exact subscriber figures and provide details about how customers get their service, whether it’s through DirecTV or the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. The agency has also requested information relating to discounts offered to customers in collaboration with Disney.

In an apparent response to concerns about News Corp.’s relations with its affils, the agency is seeking copies of the company’s affil agreements with 10 of its stations.

Clock stopped

The request for information comes just a few days after the FCC stopped its 180-day merger-review clock to allow more time to review the deal.

But the move did little to satisfy the merger’s harshest critics.

“I am disappointed in the narrowness of their request,” complained Jeff Chester, who heads the Center for Digital Democracy, in a statement sent to reporters Thursday. “Grocery lists are more elaborate than this.”

Many concerns

Chester recited a long list of concerns about the deal. While he gave the agency credit for asking News Corp. for its agreements with affils, he wondered why the FCC is not exploring complaints that Fox has pressured affils to turn over their digital spectrum to the network.

Additionally, Chester would like the FCC to scrutinize how the satcaster plans to compete with cable in terms of subscriber rates and programming.

“The whole idea of the merger is that (DirecTV) is supposed to compete with the cable monopoly,” he wrote. “The commission has failed to ask the fundamental question. With such significant broadcast and cable holdings, why would News Corp./Fox (once it controls DirecTV) compete against itself?”

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