Writers Guild West among organizations against merger

A host of industry orgs, consumer and media watchdog groups weighed in against the Comcast-NBC Universal deal on Thursday, the deadline for filing the last round of comments on the merger with the Federal Communications Commission.

In its filing, the Writers Guild of America West took issue with Comcast’s assertion that the merger would advance competition in the industry. Instead, the deal represents an enhancement of market power for Comcast and NBC U, including the ability to raise prices and limit consumer choice, the guild said.

“While Comcast has granted concessions to business groups that might otherwise have opposed this merger, such as local station affiliates of NBC and the other broadcast networks, these agreements benefit business interests, not the public interest,” said the WGAW.

The guild repeated previous requests that the commission impose conditions to promote competition and diversity. That included its view that the FCC should require that no less than 25% of new primetime series on NBC and Comcast-NBC U networks be produced by independent entities. The terms should be crafted to ensure “maximum diversity of voices and artists on such programming, not just to provide more programming space for other large media companies,” the guild said.

It accused Comcast of paying lip service to the importance of indie content. For example, it says Comcast’s reply comments to the FCC discuss “the importance of obtaining and providing outlets for programming from diverse sources.” But WGAW’s own analysis reveals that “only three of the 17 series on NBC’s fall 2010 primetime schedule are produced independent of vertically integrated media companies.”

By that analysis, indie content reps less than 18% of NBC’s fall sked, it said. And of the seven new series debuting in the fall on NBC, “none will be independently produced.”

Now that the public comment period is closed, FCC staff and commissioners will hunker down on their review of the merger and negotiations with Comcast and NBC U on possible concessions to be imposed as a condition of granting approval. The Justice Dept.’s antitrust wing is also reviewing the merger. The timetable for federal approval is unclear, but execs with Comcast and NBC U parent General Electric have said they’re confident the reviews will be completed by year’s end.

In its filing on Thursday, the American Cable Assn., an org that represents small-and medium-sized cable TV systems, urged the FCC to impose a variety of conditions on the Comcast-NBC U merger to protect rival cablers from the industry goliath.

The ACA asked the FCC to prevent Comcast from escalating the price of cable and broadcast channels that must be purchased by rival systems to remain competitive. Unless conditions are placed on the merger, Comcast-NBC U will have “unmatched leverage” in both traditional and online media markets to harm competing cable and satellite operators by driving up programming costs, said ACA topper Matthew Polka.

The ACA comments were among numerous industry and public interest filings to the agency in response to its deadline in the controversial merger proceeding. A joint filing by four public interest orgs claimed that the FCC’s Comcast-NBC U docket contained 33,049 filings at last count, 94% of which opposed the merger.

ACA’s Polka also asked the FCC to require the merged company to sell NBC U cablers and regional sports networks on a stand-alone basis rather than bundle them with other channels. It asked the agency to protect small cable systems from having to pay fees for any NBC station or sports cabler that are more than 5% higher than the lowest fee paid by any other local distributor.

Comcast responded with its own filing to the FCC on Thursday evening, arguing that “despite having had more than six months to formulate plausible theories of harm to competition or consumers and to muster evidence to support such theories, the record evidence demonstrates that those theories are wholly speculative and unsupported.”

It noted that the transaction has received more than 1,000 third-party letters in support from lawmakers, community leaders and other media companies.

Comcast argues that it has made a “compelling” case for the public-interest benefits of the deal. Among other things, Comcast says, it will reinvigorate local broadcasting, expand the distribution of independent networks and accelerate the “anytime, anywhere” video choices “that consumers are demanding today.”

But consumer groups have only hardened their opposition to the deal. A joint filing by four orgs — Free Press, Media Access Project, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union — argued that the FCC’s record now includes massive evidence that the proposed merger will harm competition.

Media Access Project senior veep Andrew Schwartzman said the views expressed in its original petition have been confirmed by Comcast’s internal business planning documents.

“It shows that the goal of this transaction is to use NBC U’s content to extend Comcast’s market power into the Internet space. There are no conditions which can ameliorate this problem,” he said. Schwartzman’s view was seconded by Mark Cooper, CFA’s research director.

Among independent cable TV channels expected to file with the agency was Arlington, Va.’s Allbritton Communications, owner of a regional cable news channel and ABC affil WJLA-TV Washington. Allbritton has asked the FCC to delay its merger decision until it has fully vetted the implications of Comcast’s influence in markets such as D.C., where Comcast owns cable systems and the Peacock has an O&O station, WRC-TV.

Allbritton hopes the FCC will either require Comcast to divest itself of NBC-owned stations in markets where it controls more than 25% of major distribution entities or mandate that it negotiate nondiscriminatory carriage agreements at market rates.

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