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FCC to gather economists to discuss Comcast - NBC Universal deal

August 26, 2010 | 12:19 pm

The Federal Communications Commission is gathering a group of economists for a closed-door meeting to discuss the potential ramifications of cable giant Comcast Corp.'s proposed deal to take a controlling stake in General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal.

The merger, which has been valued at $30 billion, would unite the nation's biggest cable and broadband operator with the parent company of the NBC broadcast network, Universal Pictures and a host of powerful cable channels such as USA, MSNBC, Bravo and Syfy. The FCC and the Justice Department are conducting the regulatory review of the deal and what, if any, conditions should be put on Comcast and NBC before the merger is approved.

The economists will be representing companies and organizations that have come out both for and against the much-debated deal. Among those represented at the meeting, which is scheduled for Friday, will be Comcast, Bloomberg and the American Cable Assn., which is a lobbying arm for smaller cable operators. Representatives for satellite broadcasters Dish Network and DirecTV may also participate. Interestingly a member of the Justice Department, which is conducting its own review of the deal, is also expected to participate in the FCC gathering.

At issue is what a combined Comcast - NBC entity would mean for both consumers and the industry. Public advocacy groups have argued that if Comcast gets control of so much content, it will be able to raise prices for consumers and harm the competition. Furthermore, they argue, it will have too much muscle when it comes to how content is offered online.

Comcast has countered that the deal is a positive for the marketplace. "It will enhance consumer choice and accelerate the development of new digital products and services," Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said at the time the agreement was unveiled.

Because there will be a lot of confidential material discussed at this meeting, it is open only to those who have agreed to a protective order designed to ensure sensitive material is not leaked or used by competitors of Comcast. Furthermore, attendance is limited to representatives of the companies wanting a say in what the deal means for the media landscape, but not company executives themselves. In other words, what's seen and heard in the meeting, stays in the meeting.

However, the FCC will release an edited transcript of the gathering with all the sensitive material redacted. In other words, after "hello" and "welcome" expect a lot of pages with blacked out sentences on them.

-- Joe Flint