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Comcast and GE have 12 to 18 months to close deal, depending on D.C. headaches

December 4, 2009 | 12:33 pm

Comcast Corp. and General Electric Co. have a window that runs from 12 to 18 months to close on the cable giant's deal to acquire majority control of GE's NBC Universal, according to Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen.

Cohen, whose title understates the multitude of roles he plays for Comcast (we like to call him the company's consigliere), said that the merger has a 12-month time limit but that each side can extend it by three months without consent from the other side. He and Rick Cotton, NBC Universal's longtime general counsel, are already in Washington making the rounds with Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Over the next week or two, look for Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts and Chief Operation Officer Steve Burke to also work the D.C. circuit along with GE CEO Jeff Immelt and NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker. 

The $30-billion proposed marriage of Comcast, the nation's largest cable and broadband provider, and NBC Universal, whose holdings include NBC, Telemundo, USA Network and Universal Studios, is going to face an uphill climb in D.C. On Thursday, several senators and congressmen said hearings needed to be held on the deal. Cohen said the paperwork for the deal should be filed in 30 to 45 days. That should make for some good reading, but definitely stack up on the coffee.

Comcast has agreed to follow government regulations that prohibit it from withholding its cable channels from rival distributors such as satellite broadcaster DirecTV. That said, Comcast will continue to be part of a lawsuit that fellow cable operator Cablevision filed looking to throw out the FCC's so-called program access rules.

There is a "legitimate debate" as to whether the competitive marketplace today "justifies program access rules," Cohen said. Noting that the rules were installed at a time before satellite was established, Cohen said the two companies the rules were put in to help are now two of the country's top distributors and have enough clout on their own without regulatory help. Those rules are supposed to expire in 2012, but don't be surprised if the FCC tries to use this deal to extend them further. 

Cohen said the loud backlash from public advocacy groups was hardly a surprise. "I think the traditional opponents of all media acquisitions and mergers issued statements we expected them to issue," he said before quipping, "Many did it before we had a deal."

Cohen and Cotton said that although they expect a thorough review, they also think it can get done inside a year. They might be optimists. On the plus side, the longer the process, the more work for reporters. Cohen cracked that the NBC deal is part of the "journalism employment act" for the next nine to 12 months. Let's hope so.

-- Joe Flint