Comcast comfort?

CEO responds to fears over NBC U union

Responding to some of the fears and criticism over Comcast’s planned union with NBC Universal, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said the new entity would far from dominate the online video market and rejected suggestions that restrictions be placed on how it delivered content to the Internet.

In written responses to questions submitted by a number of senators, including Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Roberts also said the union of the two companies “should not affect cable pricing to consumers,” noting that “competition is — and will remain — intense” among cable channels and operators. He declined a suggestion from Feingold that cable rate increases be tied to inflation.

Roberts has been through four congressional hearings on the proposed pact, in which Comcast would purchase a 51% stake in NBC Universal. Although the Department of Justice and the FCC have the authority to approve the union of the companies, the hearings have been a very public venue for politicians and interest groups to weigh in on a host of concerns.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has been among the most vocal against the transaction. Following a hearing before a Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, he also submitted a series of questions to Roberts. A big concern is that the entity will exercise greater control over access to content, charging for programs that were once available free of charge. Franken asked Roberts whether he’d guarantee that the company won’t remove NBC or Comcast’s current or future shows on the Internet, or that it won’t provide them only to cable subscribers.

Roberts answered that the company cannot “make guarantees about how the marketplace will evolve.”

“The marketplace for online video is dynamic, with lots of competitors experimenting with various business models,” he said. “While I can make no predictions as to the future, I can tell you our goal is to maximize the distribution of content on multiple platforms. I do not see that goal changing.”

He said the entity would be far from a dominant player online, noting that it will not have a controlling interest in Hulu because NBC U has only a 32% stake. Moreover, he wrote in response to Feingold that “neither Comcast nor NBC U has any prospect of dominating online video.”

Roberts promised Franken that the company would not appeal an FCC order eliminating a loophole that allowed cable firms to withhold channels such as regional sports nets from competitors. He also said it would not appeal a Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week that upheld the FCC’s “program access rules,” which require that they make programming they own available to competing satellite companies. A spokeswoman for Cablevision, which also challenged the rules, said the company is still considering their options.

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