Says it will boost public service, local programming

Sweetening its list of public interest commitments as part of its proposed combination with NBC Universal, Comcast says it will further boost local programming and undertake a $15 million-per-year public service campaign on digital literacy and childhood nutrition.

Comcast said it was making the commitments to provide “further amplification” of the benefits of the transaction.

They come as FCC chairman Julius Genachowski is circulating a proposed order among other commissioners that would greenlight the transaction with conditions. A decision is expected soon, but critics and opponents of the transaction have still been weighing in, calling on regulators to make sure there are stronger safeguards to protect competition and independently owned content.

In a letter to the FCC filed Monday, Comcast said it would add 1,000 hours of local news and information programming annually for three years to NBC U’s Telemundo-owned stations, in addition to the 1,000 hours per year of public affairs programming it previously said it would add to NBC-owned stations.

Comcast also outlined a series of steps it says will boost children’s educational programming, undertaking PSA campaigns over five years worth $15 million annually on topics including digital literacy, parental controls, nutritional guidelines and childhood obesity. The latter spots will run on NBC during its educational and informational programming and on PBS Kids Sprout.

Another commitment would have NBC U add an additional hour per week of children’s educational programming on Telemundo-owned stations over three years, beyond the three hours now required. Comcast previously said it would add an hour per week of children’s programming to one of the multicast channels of NBC-owned stations. It also said it will take steps to make it easier for parents to limit access to objectionable content, including improved parental navigation controls.

The FCC has received a flurry of recent correspondence lobbying for and against the transaction, from a wide range of public interest groups and individuals, including filmmaker Edward Burns, who has distributed his films online (he wrote in support).

More than 100 members of Congress, including Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), signed a letter last week urging the FCC to complete their review “without further delay” and to not weigh it down with further regulatory requirements. But other lawmakers, like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), have written to express reservations about its impact on independent programming and smaller competitors.

Some Comcast competitors continue to press for stronger conditions. The review process has focused extensively on the burgeoning market for Web video, and one worry is that it will come at the expense of more stringent safeguards to prevent Comcast from freezing out content and channels it does not own. Reps for the Tennis Channel, for instance, argue that existing “program carriage” rules, designed to enable cable networks to more fairly gain access to a competitors’ cable system, were not sufficient to protect competition if the deal is approved. They have filed a separate complaint against Comcast, charging that the Tennis Channel is being placed on less desirable tiers while networks in which Comcast has a financial stake, like the Golf Channel, get better placement.

Another org that has been critical of the transaction, the American Cable Assn., which represents smaller cable operators, expressed doubts that proposed conditions to send disputes over program carriage fees — the amount operators pay to carry a channel — into “baseball-style” arbitration would be sufficient, arguing that in some cases they could even make things worse. DirecTV and Dish Network, Comcast’s satellite competitors, also take issue with the arbitration idea, arguing that it should involve single channels and not programming as a bundle.

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