Zucker, Roberts Grilled By Senate Antitrust Subcommittee Over Merger

If the grilling of Comcast and NBC top execs is any indication, the merger of the two companies faces an uphill battle in the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.

Comcast chairman Brian Roberts and NBCU president Jeff Zucker found themselves repeatedly challenged, and occasionally cut off, by passionate bordering on belligerent Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a former Saturday Night Live writer and performer who made it clear he did not think the merger was ready for primetime.

It's probably a good thing for both Comcast and NBCU that the FCC and the Justice Department, not the subcommittee, have to vet the deal, with Congress in a secondary, oversight role.

Franken, who worked with Zucker's wife, Karen, at Saturday Night Live, got the pleasantries out of the way quickly, saying how much he owed NBC and how super Zucker's wife was to work with, before taking off the gloves taking aim at the deal.

Franken suggested the companies public-interest promises could not be trusted and that Comcast, for one, was arguing that FCC rules would protect consumers on one hand, while fighting the same rules in court. Franken came just short of saying Roberts had mislead him in a meeting they had in his office about the issue. Roberts said it had been a misunderstanding between challenges of program-access and program-carriage rules.

Roberts said his lawyers may have argued that, but he was ready to commit to adhering to program-access rules even if the courts threw them out. He went beyond an earlier suggestion the company was willing to make that part of an FCC conversation to commiting to abide by them as a condition of the deal.

Franken argued that while NBC said back in the early 1990s -- allowing networks to own a financial stake in

primetime would not edge out independent programmers --  in fact had been the result. Zucker countered that of 18 new pilots, seven, or 39% were not affiliated with NBC, which he said was a large percentage. Which means 60% are, Franken countered.

The hearing became something of a tag team match with Roberts and Zucker against Franken with the aid of Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project and Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America, with some help from Colleen Abdoulah of independent cable operator/ISP WoW!

Cooper and Schwartzman said there were no conditions that would make the deal palatable, while Abdoulah said it would take non-discriminatory access to programing and a complaint process that was not stacked against the company filing the complaint.

Schwatzman said the merger would be the biggest media marriage since Lucy and Desi. Zucker said he only wished for those days, with three networks dividing up the audience.

Zucker's argument in the Senate and earlier House hearing on the deal is that in the media free-for-all of today, Comcast's commitment to the broadcast network model could be crucial to its survival.

There were some NBC fans on the Senate panel, including the other senator from Minnesota, Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Subcommittee chairman Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.). They were able to secure promises from both Roberts and Zucker that the NBC programming that they liked to stream -- The Office, SNL -- would not be moved to the TV Everywhere model only available to cable subs. Kohl wanted assurances that the NFL wouldn't be moving, but Roberts pointed out that the league called those shots.

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.