Few immediate regulatory hurdles for a Comcast-NBC combo
There isn't even a deal to criticize yet, but that's not stopping some public advocacy groups from making noise about a possible Comcast-NBC Universal combination needing to be scrutinized by regulators in Washington.
As we noted earlier, on the surface a combination of NBC Universal and Comcast does not appear to run afoul of any big regulations. Yes, it would be a huge content company with holdings that would include NBC and about 30 cable networks including E!, MSNBC, CNBC, USA Network and the Golf Channel. But while there are limits on how many broadcast networks a company can own (it's one, although CBS has a green light to co-own the CW), there are none when it comes to cable networks. That may sound silly, but that's the way D.C. operates. A company can own 15 big cable networks and no one in D.C. will say boo, but try to combine two broadcast networks or a local station with a newspaper and the world will explode.
There used to be rules that prohibited cable operators from owning local TV stations in the same market, but the Federal Communications Commission gutted them several years ago. The talks between Comcast and General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal are about combining programming holdings into a new company. Comcast would keep its cable systems.
Some are raising concerns that Comcast would try to keep its content away from rival distributors such as satellite broadcasters and telephone operators. It is a legitimate worry, but the FCC already has rules in place for that. The so-called program access regulations prohibit vertically integrated companies (companies that own content and distribution) from refusing to sell their programming to competing distributors.
Now, Comcast and another cable operator, Cablevision, have been trying to get the courts to toss the program access rules but so far have not been successful. The rules are set to expire in 2012. A Comcast-NBC deal may give the FCC the juice necessary to keep the program access rules around even longer.
If the deal includes NBC's TV stations, Comcast would have to get FCC approval to become the license holder. Any combination of NBC and Comcast will also likely get a strong look from the Justice Department and Congress. But given the other mega-media mergers that flew through Washington during the Clinton administration, it is hard to imagine that this one can be derailed based on the current regulatory environment.
-- Joe Flint