Interest Groups Respond To Comcast/NBCU Public Interest Filing

There was plenty of interest in Comcast/NBCU's public interest filing Thursday at the FCC, much of it from critics of the deal who remained critics of those public interest pledges.

The suggestion by Comcast and GE that the FCC didn't need to get into the online access issue was tabbed as "incredulous" by Public Knowledge Legal Director Harold Feld. "When the Commission considers any conditions to this transaction, it must take into account both existing online competitors and those the Commission hopes will emerge. The Commission must make certain competitors will have access to Comcast and NBC programming as the online market evolves," he said.

Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver called "positively Orwellian" the suggestion that the deal was pro-consumer. "Comcast's reputation for customer service ranks about one rung above Enron and Blackwater. The idea that it is magically going to be consumer friendly after it gets bigger doesn't pass the laugh test. Regulators at FCC and the Department of Justice should cut through the rhetoric and put a spotlight on the real problems with this kind of unprecedented media consolidation," he said.

Comcast argues that the deal is not even in the ballpark of horizontal mergers that FCC caps on ownership and crossownership target, and points out that the commission already has program access and carriage rules to deals with any complaints about access to programming by the vertical combination of content and distribution.

The American Cable Association, which has joined with Free Press and Public Knowledge to push for conditions on the deal, including on online distribution, continues to stop short of outright opposing the deal. But President Matt Polka said the conditions were "totally porous and inadequate."

He also took aim at the pledge to apply program access rules to retransmission consent agreements. "This ‘commitment' isn't without irony, given that Comcast is asking a federal appeals court to tear up those rules and toss them in the wastebasket," he said.

Media Access Project's Andrew Schwartzman was on the same page. "My initial review suggests that Comcast has done nothing to address the most serious problems posed by the transaction," he said. "One thing that stands out is Comcast's assurance that existing regulations adequately address program access provisions at the same time that the cable industry is challenging them in court."

Comcast has said that it will commit to those rules so long as they remain in effect, not that they defend the rules as necessary, which they don't, arguing there is sufficiently competitive marketplace without them. They have joined with Cablevision in challenging the need for the rules, concluding that if a court agrees with them that the rules are no longer necessary, sunsetting the condition would naturally follow.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.