Group urges 'hard look' at NBC U, Comcast deal

A coalition of consumer groups, media watchdogs, labor unions and medium-sized cable operators are urging President Obama and Congress to take a “hard look” at the proposed merger of NBC Universal into Comcast, arguing that the pact “will have a devastating effect on the media marketplace.”

The group of 23 orgs includes the Consumers Union, Free Press, Public Knowledge, the Parents Television Council, the Writers Guild of America, the National Organization for Women and the American Cable Assn.

In an open letter to Obama and lawmakers, the orgs said that the pact could have a particular impact on the growth of online video. “The proposed deal could make it even harder for diverse and independent voices to find an audience, as Comcast would have the incentive to prioritize NBC channels and programs over others. Control of NBC U programming also would give Comcast the opportunity to prioritize its own online video products over those of its competitors — or sharply reduce online video distribution altogether — pushing independent producers out of the picture.”

The orgs did not express outright opposition to the merger but said that “any approval of the merger must include meaningful conditions that extend well beyond those previously imposed on less significant mergers.”

The merger, they said, “will result in less competition, higher consumer costs and fewer content choices.”

In unveiling the deal on Dec. 3, Comcast said that it would pledge a series of “public interest commitments,” including promises to add nonaffiliated channels to its digital lineup each year for three years. The company also argues that once the merger goes through, six out of seven channels carried by Comcast will be unaffiliated networks.

The list of commitments does not address concerns over the consolidation of Internet video distribution, an issue that is one of the chief concerns of consumer groups as the FCC considers so-called Net neutrality rules.

Sena Fitzmaurice, exec director of corporate communications and government affairs for Comcast, said in a statement: “Viewed objectively, the GE/Comcast NBC U transaction is pro-consumer and strongly in the public interest, and we look forward to making that case to Congress, the Justice Dept. and the FCC. There is absolutely no evidence that this proposed transaction would produce any of the adverse effects these groups claim the deal would cause. In fact, existing law already prohibits any discrimination by Comcast against other providers regarding programming we own and would preclude Comcast from ‘prioritizing’ NBC U channels. Further, the emerging online video market is extraordinarily competitive, with sites like YouTube, Netflix, iTunes and dozens of others already offering video from a wide range of content providers, large and small.”

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