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Senate Commerce Committee Holds Comcast-NBCU Hearing

A lot of ground was covered, but with less drama than previous hearings, as supporters and opponents of the Comcast-NBCU merger once again converged on Capitol Hill. This time the action took place before the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday, the fourth Hill hearing on the proposed joint venture.

NBCU and Comcast are looking to get Washington's blessing on their $30 billion joint venture.

In almost three hours of testimony, the committee heard first from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and assistant attorney general for antitrust Christine Varney about process, then from Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts and others.

While neither of the regulators could talk about specifics of the deal, Varney assured the panel that Justice would be no rubber stamp, and the chairman said that the deal, as with any deal, would be reviewed under a broad public interest standard with consumers as the focus.

Varney followed up her assurance with examples where Justice had taken action. She pointed to the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger, which she pointed out Justice approved only on conditions of divestiture and unbundling, terms meaningful to critics of the Comcast/NBCU deal.

Brian Roberts assured the senators again that he was committed to preserving NBC as a free, over-the-air service, and even suggested he would put it in writing. In response to questions about whether Comcast would restrict online access to NBC content, he said his goal was to make more content available on more platforms. But he also said it was a nascent market, and that there could me numerous models, ranging from free ad-supported to a VOD model.

In contrast to the tough, bordering on belligerent, questioning from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Senate Judiciary hearing, the Commerce members' tone was less accusatory, though Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) did press Roberts on the point that he was trying to make money out of the deal and whether he would mind if other companies followed his lead and further consolidation occurred.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said Congress needed to pay attention to consolidation to make sure that mergers did not decrease access to programming and increase rates. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), former chair of the Committee, said that the deal deserved vigorous scrutiny. He said size alone should not be the basis for denying a merger, and if so plenty of previous mergers would have been denied.

Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation reprised testimony asserting that the deal would need tough conditions, but beyond that, that the FCC also addition needed to toughen its rules on access to programming and a host of other issues so that the changes were industry-wide and not just deal-specific.

TV producer and Writers Guild of America West chief John Wells (ER, West Wing, Southland), spoke on behalf of the writers union, raising concerns about the access to independent programming, both on the nets and on the web. He said one condition on the deal should be setting aside 25% of prime time on both cable and broadcast nets for independent programming. Roberts countered that he did not support a government-mandated quota, but that his company was interested in improving fourth-place NBC's product. Wells cited stats on declining independent fare on network schedules, but Roberts said that was a history Comcast was not a part of, suggesting the future was all about improving the product, wherever that came from. He also said Comcast had a history of using outside programming and that did not have a financial interest in the vast majority of its channels.