FCC chair proposes conditions on Comcast/NBC merger

Just days after announcing a new framework for network neutrality—which is largely being interpreted as favoring corporate interests over consumer rights and a free Internet—FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has proposed conditions for the pending merger between cable giant Comcast and broadcaster NBC Universal. The conditions, if enacted, would guarantee Comcast’s competitors would have reasonable, non-discriminatory access to NBC television programing. However, neither Genachowski nor the broader FCC have disclosed the specific conditions in the proposal.

Comcast is seeking government approval to acquire a 51 percent controlling stake in NBC Universal from General Electric in a deal with about $13.8 billion. The deal was announced over a year ago but has had to wind its way through considerable regulatory review from the FCC and the Justice Department. Comcast has been pushing to get the deal completed by the end of 2010, although it’s now looking like approval will happen in early 2011.

The intention behind Genachowski’s conditions seems to be preventing Comcast from holding NBC programming hostage from other video service providers, like satellite TV operators, competing cable companies, phone operators, as well as online video distributors. Critics of the Comcast/NBC merger have speculated that Comcast would begin charging higher fees for competitors to carry NBC programming, protecting Comcast’s own customer base while driving up costs for non-Comcast services. Genachowski must still garner support for his proposal from fellow FCC commissioners: at least two others must support the idea for the conditions to be imposed on the merger.

NBC Universal represents a broad pantheon of television programming, including now only the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks but also a number of cable properties including Bravo, CNBC, Oxygen, SyFy, and USA. Universal Pictures, in addition to being a major movie studio, also controls theme parks. NBC also owns a stake in the online video distribution service Hulu.

Comcast is the nation’s largest cable television operator, with about 23 million video subscriber. The company is also the nation’s larger broadband ISP, with more than 17 million Internet subscribers.

Backbone Internet operator Level 3 Communications has called for regulators to place restrictions on the Comcast/NBC merger that requires Comcast to adhere to reasonable, non-discriminatory practices in interconnecting with other Internet operators.

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