Comcast-NBC U hookup raises issues

Does Comcast have a plan for NBC? Will the merged company have to dump some properties to satisfy regulators? Where do Brian Roberts and Steve Burke stand on “The Jay Leno Show”?

Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal poses a pile of unanswered questions — some that company officials aren’t revealing, and others that execs don’t know the answers to right now.

With the regulatory process expected to take at least a year, some of these puzzlers might be resolved over time. But for now, here’s a sampling of burning questions in the wake of Thursday’s merger announcement:

- It’s obvious Comcast wants to wed its cable networks with NBC Universal’s stable to unlock additional value and expand its content portfolio, but what about NBC?

- How long until outgoing owner GE is blamed for the “Jay Leno” experiment, and hands are washed of that primetime strip? What does this do, if anything, to the long-term prospects of Leno in primetime?

- Is there genuine content-distribution synergy? People have soured on this notion thanks to misfires like AOL-Time Warner, but Comcast would appear to be such a neat fit with many of NBC U’s assets that there are opportunities to make 2 + 2 = 5.

- How will Hulu co-exist with Comcast’s Online On Demand initiative? Hulu, in which NBC U owns a 27% stake, so far is free to consumers (with ads) while Comcast’s push requires viewers to already subscribe to cable service.

- Will Comcast be forced to divest any stations in order to secure regulatory approval? In Los Angeles, NBC U has a waiver to own three stations, despite rules prohibiting triopolies.

- How will NBC Sports, Versus and Comcast’s local sports networks be combined to form a larger sports entity? Will they drive up the bidding for sports rights?

- Are there bigger things in the cards for one-time NBC Studios president and now Comcast Entertainment Group chief Ted Harbert? And where does Comcast Programming Group topper Jeff Shell fit in?

- Although Comcast says “99.9%” of the two businesses don’t overlap, they admit there are redundancies in the “headquarter function of the programming side.” How many staffers might be cut, and where?

- Does this put merger and acquisition pressure on smaller showbiz concerns like CBS Corp. and Sony Pictures? Are we heading into a mega mergers period where everyone, particularly public firms, are seen to be in play?

- What does this do to negotiations between Comcast and other cable networks — and what are the implications for subscriber fees?

- Will Comcast launch local news networks in markets where it owns both the major cable system and an NBC station? Comcast already operates the New England Cable News network, could that be a model for other parts of the country?

- What are Comcast’s plans for the movie studio, Universal? When might the conglom start playing around with windows, as execs hinted on Thursday?

- Comcast execs already admit they need to learn the movie business; do they really have the time or interest to learn the fickle theme park industry as well? Universal’s parks business might be seen as an unnecessary distraction to what Comcast is trying to do with the merger.

- NBC was able to seal its last Olympics contract thanks to its GE ownership, which provided needed services to the Games (something rival bidders couldn’t offer). Comcast and NBC execs said Thursday they’re still interested in bidding for future rights — will an expanded sports portfolio help that cause, and will GE still play a major role in the talks?

- Who is Bill O’Reilly going to direct his venom at now? The Fox News Channel host has targeted GE as a way of punching back at MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, trying to punish his bosses for allowing Olbermann to ridicule O’Reilly on a nightly basis. Does he shift his attention to Comcast’s Brian Roberts? And does GE finally get itself off the hook from the host’s attacks?

- What’s the Comcast team’s real long-term plan for Jeff Zucker?

Could all of these issues eventually be moot?

Vivendi, after all, could still play spoiler in the deal. The French telco agreed to sell its 20% stake in NBC U to GE for $5.8 billion, but it won’t see any coin until the Comcast-GE deal is complete.

Vivendi noted in a release Thursday that GE has to pay $2 billion for 7.66% of that stake if the Comcast deal isn’t closed by September. And if that’s the case, Vivendi “would launch an accelerated initial public offering” of its remaining 12.34% interest in the Peacock.

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