Comcast NBC U Hearings: Saying Much, But Saying Little

The Comcast and NBC Universal merger was once again before a congressional committee this morning, this time with two key figures in deciding whether the pact will get government approval: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and Christine Varney, who heads the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.

While Genachowski stressed that the FCC would consider the transaction’s public interest impact, and Varney emphasized that they would take into account its effect on competition, they addressed the proposed merger in very broad strokes, citing the ongoing investigation and review.

In fact, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said to Genachowski, in a tone of irreverence, “Mr. chairman, thank you for coming and not commenting on any of the specifics.”

However, Genachoski did say that they should have some indication of the timing of their review after they issue a public notice on their review in the next few days.

Although Genachowski would not comment on specifics related to the Comcast NBC U deal, the subject of retransmission fees came up during the hearing, given the recent showdown between Disney and Cablevision that saw New York subscribers lose their access to the ABC affiliate in the first few minutes of the Oscars on Sunday.

The FCC chairman said that they are “in the process of reviewing whether there are improvements in the framework [of current retransmission consent rules] that make sense.” He acknowledged that cablers have recently requested a review on the grounds that “the framework that has been in place may have lost pace with changes” in the marketplace.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said that “at this point I cannot support the merger,” and cited fears that online access to video content will be blocked and controlled by the giant new entity. She cited in particular restrictions place on access to online video of the recent Vancouver Olympics. And she even suggested that they look at ala carte programming, the idea that cable subscribers could pick and choose what channels they want. It’s long been opposed — and a fear — of cable companies.

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