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FTC and Department of Justice will duke it out to see who gets to review Comcast-NBC

December 2, 2009 |  1:18 pm

There may be a tug-of-war brewing in Washington, D.C., over whether the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department will join the Federal Communications Commission in reviewing Comcast's anticipated deal to take control of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, which is expected to be announced as early as Thursday.

Neither the FTC nor the Justice Department would comment on who should review the transaction. Since the marriage of Comcast and NBC brings together the nation's largest cable and broadband provider with a major content provider whose assets include NBC, Telemundo and USA Network, Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC, both can make a case for it.

Public advocacy groups are already making noise that the Comcast-NBC entity would have too much power over content and distribution and would need severe restrictions. Andy Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project and an expert at giving good sound bite, called the deal "the most important media merger since Lucy met Desi."

If recent history is any guide, the Justice Department might have the inside track. It reviewed Liberty's purchase of DirecTV, is handling the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster and also oversaw Disney-ABC and Viacom-CBS. The FTC, however, did review AOL and Time Warner. Considering how that one worked out, maybe Comcast and NBC should root for the Justice Department to get their deal.

Typically, the FTC and the Justice Department would figure out between themselves who has dibs on the deal. Both would not get involved because that would be overkill. In the unlikely scenario they can't decide amongst themselves and decide not to flip a coin, then the administration would probably step in and make the choice for them. 

With regards to Congress, the likely first stop for Comcast and NBC will be the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee. A hearing could be held on the deal before the end of the year. The subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who in the past has expressed concern about the way cable programmers bundle their channels together to operators. Interestingly, comedian-turned-senator Al Franken (D-Minn) is a member of that subcommittee too. Not sure if his time on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" will mean he has to recuse himself from any hearings.

-- Joe Flint

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