Sen. Al Franken comes out swinging against Comcast-NBC deal
Doesn't look like comedian turned senator Al Franken is planning a return to NBC's "Saturday Night Live" anytime soon.
In his opening remarks about the proposed Comcast-NBC deal at a hearing held by the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Franken (D-Minn.) ripped into the deal and the risks it could present to not only consumers but media competition as well.
Franken, who was a regular on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for years and also had a short-lived sitcom on the network called "Lateline" in the late 1990s, dismissed the claims made by Comcast and NBC Universal that the partnering of the nation's largest broadband and cable provider with the entertainment giant would not harm competitors or the public.
Franken noted that similar promises were made by NBC when it was supporting the gutting of federal regulations that limited the amount of programming a broadcast network could own. Known as the financial interest and syndication rules, the Federal Communications Commission removed them over a decade ago after years of debate between producers and networks. Getting rid of the so-called fin-syn rules cleared the way for the mergers of Walt Disney and ABC as well as Viacom and CBS.
At the same time, most independent production companies were either gobbled up or went out of business. Today, the majority of programming is made by the big broadcast networks and studios.
Franken even pointed to NBC General Counsel Rick Cotton during his opening remarks and accused NBC of demanding that producers give them ownership in shows if they wanted the shows to get on the air.
"If an independent producer wants to get show on, it is routine practice, and you guys know it, for the network to demand at least part ownership of the show," Franken said. "Lateline" was produced by Paramount, NBC and Franken's own company.
Franken's remarks have provided the biggest fireworks of the day so far. Earlier Thursday morning, Comcast and NBC Universal chief executives Brian Roberts and Jeff Zucker faced a mix of hardball and softball questions about the deal from the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.
Lots of the same ground is being covered in the two hearings. There is great concern from lawmakers about media concentration, discrimination against small and independent programmers, and programming available on free television migrating to cable.
It was pretty easy to tell who was on team Comcast - NBC Universal and who wasn't in the House hearing, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Comcast needs to "ensure independent writers, directors and producers won't be harmed" by the deal to acquire majority control of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal.
Also wary was Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who expressed fears that the deal will stifle competition and end up costing consumers.
Skeptical of the concerns of media watchdogs was Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who said he was more interested in talking about the deal and not a bunch of "what if" scenarios.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Sen. Al Franken. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg