FCC field hearing focuses on possible merger

The merger between Comcast and NBC Universal would present the cable TV giant with both incentives and ability to discriminate against competitors, especially in the emerging market of online video, a cadre of detractors argued Tuesday.

The occasion was an FCC field hearing held at Chicago’s Northwestern U. Law School, where two expert panels discussed the impact of the proposed merger on distributors of online video and multichannel video programming. A majority of the first panel voiced views that the combined entity would decrease choice, investment and diversity in video entertainment. No reps from Comcast or NBC U participated in the panels at the hearing.

The tone was set early by an impassioned FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a noted critic of the proposed union and the only FCC member to appear at the session.

“I cannot, I will not, accept half-hearted pledges of fairness from industry when the future of the Web is at stake,” said Copps in his opening statement. “And right now the assurances and conditions we have received on this Comcast/NBC U proposal don’t pass the red-face test.”

Jeffrey Blum, deputy general counsel for satcaster Dish Network, said the proposed merger would present a serious threat to competition since both Comcast and NBC U are deeply involved in online vid market, and could use their market power to push out competitors.

That view was seconded by Cardozo Law School professor Susan Crawford, who said Comcast could use its pricing power as an Internet service provider to make it uneconomical for rival video services to emerge.

Josh Silver, prexy and CEO of media watchdog org Free Press, contended that the FCC is required to ensure that mergers will promote the public interest, a showing he claims neither Comcast nor NBC U can make. “Adopting conditions to neutralize the harms of a bad merger is not the same as ensuring that a merger would promote the public interest,” he said.

Also participating was Scott Wallsten, VP for research of Technology Policy Institute, a nonprofit group that counts Comcast among its supporters. He confined his remarks to antitrust perspectives.

In advance of the meeting, the FCC officially informed Comcast and NBC Universal that on July 6, it had restarted the 180-day transaction time clock for its review of the merger. It had stopped the clock last month to solicit additional information from both parties. Restarting the clock makes July 13 the 45th day of the agency’s review, per Media Bureau chief Bill Lake, which means that the merger could be approved by year’s end as Comcast and General Electric execs have targeted.

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