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Opposition to Comcast - NBC deal staking their turf

February 3, 2010 |  5:17 pm

Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts does not have some grand plan to undermine American democracy, says Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, a public policy law firm.

But if Roberts' effort to acquire control of NBC Universal from General Electric Co. succeeds, that could be the end result, warned Schwartzman, who is one of the leading opponents of the Comcast - NBC Universal marriage.

In written testimony submitted to the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee in advance of a hearing on the deal scheduled for Thursday, Schwartzman said a combination of the nation's biggest cable and broadband provider with the programming powerhouse would hurt competitors and consumers and ultimately must be stopped.

Schwartzman, a veteran media watchdog who perhaps got off the best quip about the deal when he called it "the most important media merger since Lucy met Desi," has always been very concerned about media concentration. In his statement to the subcommittee, he charges Comcast with favoring programming it has an ownership stake in over programming from independent suppliers.

Furthermore, if the $30-billion Comcast - NBC Universal deal gets approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, Schwartzman fears it will mean higher prices for consumers. Comcast, he said, will have the ability to artificially inflate what it pays itself to carry its own channels and make other distribution services pay the same amount. Those costs, he added, will be passed on to consumers.

Having said all that, Schwartzman did say he didn't think Roberts was "evil."

Also testifying at the same hearing will be Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America. Cooper is also against the deal. One of his big concerns is what the combination of Comcast's cable systems with NBC's TV stations will mean to rivals. For example, in Washington, D.C., Comcast is the big cable operator and NBC owns WRC-TV. The two could team up to offer better deals on advertising. Cooper then takes it a step -- actually a foot or two -- further and says rival media outlets will have less money to spend on news and will either have to "fire staff and reduce production of local news and information or consolidate in order to compensate for market share lost to the new media mammoth."

Comcast's Roberts and NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker will also be testifying before the subcommittee Thursday afternoon as well as before the House Subcommittee on Communications, which is also holding a hearing on the deal Thursday morning.

-- Joe Flint