Roberts: Comcast Won't Discriminate Against Competitor's Web Programming

Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts and NBCU President Jeff Zucker have responded to a host of follow-up questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members about their proposed joint venture, with Roberts saying his company will not discriminate against competitors Web programming, but making no promises about putting all, or any, new programming on the Web.

That is according to a copy of those answers obtained by B&C/Multi. Most questions were broadly philosophical and drew similar answers that essentially restated hearing testimony about the lack of overlap of assets, the competitiveness of the market, or the relatively small share the combined company would control of cable channels or online content.

But there were a series of pointed questions from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), by far the most aggressive questioner in two separate hearings on the deal, attempting to pin Roberts and Zucker down about specific conditions and potential pledges. Zucker deferred to Roberts on most of those questions, since Comcast will be the majority owner of the new venture.

So, did Franken get the answers he was asking for. Well, yes and no.

Franken: Will you promise not to appeal the FCC's [terrestrial exemption] order at the FCC or in court?

Roberts: Yes, but. He said that the company still thought the FCC's decision not to sunset it in 2007 was arbitrary and capricious and that the company should be able to enter into exclusive contracts.

Franken: "If this merger goes through, will you guarantee that the company will place any future shows it owns on the Internet."

Roberts: No. He said that pledge was one that no owner of expensive, high-quality programming has made or "could responsibly make." He said the goal is to expand online content but that it would be "premature" to speculate whether any particular show would be made available now or later.

Franken: "Do you promise not to discriminate against other companies' programming on the Internet, even if the FCC never promulgates net neutrality regs."

Roberts: Yes. He said the company has always operated its high-speed Internet service according to the FCC's Internet openness guidelines, "and our commitment to operating in this manner is unwavering."

Franken: "If the merger goes through and there are no net neutrality regulations in place would you agree to binding merger conditions forbidding you from favoring your own programming on your own Internet video websites for five years?"

Roberts: No. He added that in a fragmented and rapidly changing marketplace there was no need for regulation or conditions governing the relationship between content producers and Web site operators.

Franken: Would you agree that these merger conditions would be binding on future incarnations of the company created by mergers, acquisitions and restructuring.
Roberts: Yes, but. The but was that he saw no reason for the conditions Franken was proposing, but that whatever conditions were ultimately put on the deal he would agree should be binding on those various incarnations.

Franken: If the FCC does not or cannot make network neutrality regulations (Sic), would you support legislation that extends program carriage rules to the Internet?"

Roberts: No. "Applying monopoly-era regulations to this competitive and dynamic marketplace would be unnecessary and counterproductive, diminishing the entrepreneurship and creativity that are needed to ensure America's Internet continues to progress," he said.

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.