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Deal Critics Call Comcast/NBCU Pre-Merger Staff Moves Premature

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Some groups critical of the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal joint venture are also criticizing pre-merger personnel moves by the two companies in anticipation that the deal will be approved by regulators.

The first big move after the naming of Steve Burke to succeed Jeff Zucker at NBC Universal came Monday with the official word, from NBC Universal TV group head Jeff Gaspin himself, that Burke had indicated he wanted to go in a different direction and Gaspin would be exiting "a short time after the merger."

Asked before the Gaspin announcement about their reaction in general to pre-merger moves by Comcast's Burke, a couple of public interest group representatives signaled they thought it was premature.

"It seems a bit hasty for Comcast to start measuring the drapes given that it has not yet won approval to acquire NBCU from either the DOJ or the FCC," said Free Press Policy Counsel Corie Wright. "It is especially premature given that, by all accounts, both those agencies appear to have significant concerns about the deal, including the combined-company's ability to squash emerging competition in the online video market."

"Our view is that merger applicants make personnel changes like this at their peril," said Public Knowledge spokesman Art Brodsky, "and these changes shouldn't be used to try to force the Commission to alter its review process.... We wouldn't want the commission to speed up its processes, for example, based on the idea that personnel changes are being made."

A source familiar with Comcast's moves said it was pretty common to announce a leadership team before a deal closes so it would be ready to go, adding that was particularly the case in creative industries so that people outside the company will know who they need to be dealing with when contracts come up for renewal or pilots need to be greenlighted.

Burke is slated to become the CEO of NBCU if and when the deal is approved by regulators. Even some deal critics have suggested the $30 billion joint venture is likely to be approved, though also likely with conditions -- either codifying what the two companies have promised in public interest commitments and side deals with various groups, adding the governments own conditions on access to programming, competition, and perhaps online content, or some combination of the two.

The FCC review process has an informal end date of nine days from today (Nov. 15), but that is according to its unofficial shot clock, which the FCC has overshot on numerous occasions.

Various industry deal-watchers are looking for something from the Department of Justice in early December, followed in short order by the FCC's decision. Justice looks at competition in terms of antitrust issues, while the FCC looks more broadly at the impact of the deal both on the competitive marketplace and the public interest.