Strings Attached

WASHINGTON — Media insiders here generally expect the Federal Communications Commission will wind up approving the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger as soon as year-end, though probably not before the first quarter of 2015, and with a number of conditions likely addressing broadband and program-access issues.

Comcast has already offered up a number of its own pledges in the public interest statement it submitted with the deal, but competitors and consolidation critics have argued much more is needed to ameliorate potential horizontal and vertical harms — which they said Comcast and TWC are lowballing considerably. A third part of this transaction to consider is the spin-off of systems to Charter Communications.

The commission’s deal docket was filling up last week with a wish list of conditions from critics who would just as soon the deal not go through, but want to exact their pound of regulatory flesh if it does — and even from a supporter.

Here, drawn from a host of filings in the docket, is just a sampling of those of proposed “remedies.”

• Cable ad-sales outsourcer Viamedia said to keep the combined company from controlling too much of the spot cable ad market, the FCC should require Comcast to give up its controlling stake in NCC Media, the national spot-cable sales firm jointly owned by Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications.

• The Sports Fans Coalition wants the FCC to require Comcast to spin off of all of its regional sports networks.

Sinclair Broadcast Group wants the FCC to require the post-merger MSO’s systems to provide non-owned stations with retrans deals that are no less advantageous than those of its NBC O&Os. The same would go with any reverse compensation NBC charged its owned stations.

• Latino programmer Entravision said if Comcast gets TWC, it should have to exit the Spanish-language network business. Its suggested conditionsthat would force Comcast to divest Telemundo and mun2, and “promise not to acquire or develop for itself any new Latino-market programming.”

• The Parents Television Council, an advocate of a la carte programming, said the only way the deal should be approved is if the FCC requires “the unbundling of cable networks owned and distributed by the newly-formed entity.”

NBC affiliates want the commission to extend the deal conditions on Comcast’s 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal for up to 10 years, arguing that without them the deal “could prompt Comcast to favor its cable distribution business at the expense of its free, over-the-air broadcasting.” Those conditions include preventing NBC from importing the signal of another NBC affiliate during retrans impasses and from supplying a Comcast cable system in a dispute with a direct linear feed of NBC network programming.

• Rural-focused cable netowrk RFD-TV wants the FCC to require Comcast to deliver at least one independent rural programming network (like RFD-TV) to 85%, and eventually 100%, of its subscribers, with rural meaning “a regional and national rural-related content, including rural general interest news and rural public-affairs programming, agribusiness, commodities prices, agricultural weather, Western sports news and other agricultural news-related programming” (like RFD-TV), and independent meaning not owned by Comcast or a top-15 programming network.

The New York Public Service Commission is suggesting the FCC require Comcast to offer a $50 per month broadband offering with download speeds of at least 10 Mbps, which the FCC has suggested could be its new baseline for high-speed broadband, but is not yet.

• Sports network Tennis Channel is calling for “comprehensive and unambiguous” conditions. Those include a 10-year program carriage nondiscrimination condition, prohibiting Comcast from requiring independent programmers to give them exclusivity, not just against other MVPDs but against all other distributors; and one requiring “appropriate structural separation between Comcast’s cable distribution and programming and business operations.”

• Cable-modem maker Zoom Telephonics wants the FCC to require Charter to make it easier for subs to hook up retail modems and require that Charter’s cable-modem lease charges “be unsubsidized and unbundled.”

Glenn Beck’s conservative TheBlaze TV network wants Comcast to be prohibited against discriminating against an independent programmer because it distributed online content for a fee — TheBlaze began as an online video service — and from agreeing to enforce most-favored nation clauses in carriage agreements with independent networks.

• Public, educational and government (PEG) programmer Fairfax Cable Access Corp. said it is not opposed to the deal, and in fact applauds Comcast’s current PEG practices. But it asks nicely that Comcast and the FCC consider a bunch of PEG-friendly moves, including providing on-screen guides equivalent to commercial broadcast primary channels, tier placement “reasonably adjacent” to broadcasters, HD carriage, comparable DVR capability and TV Everywhere distribution of PEG channels.

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.