Will Comcast/NBC Need FCC Approval? And How Would That Play Out?

The industry news is abuzz with the upcoming Comcast/NC Universal Deal. According to recent reports, Comcast would buy 51% of NBC Universal (assuming Vivendi, which owns 20% at the moment, agreed with the terms). But beyond this general framework, it’s unclear whether all the assets held by NBC Universal would be included in the deal. Whether or not the FCC has jurisdiction hinges on this question.

The FCC does not have general jurisdiction over deals pertaining to content. NBC Universal owns lots of radio and television stations. Transfer of the licenses to the new Comcast-controlled entity would require FCC approval. But if the deal does not include the licenses, the FCC would probably lack a jurisdictional hook. Review of the deal would lie strictly in antitrust — at either the DoJ or Federal Trade Commission (FTC). From an antitrust perspective, the deal raises some concerns given the concentration of content and Comcast’s position vis-a-vis other existing subscription television providers (e.g., FIOS, DIRECTV) and potential new competitors (e.g., Netflix and other “over the top” video providers)). It may also concern broadcasters, both NBC affiliates worried about the change in management and other broadcasters worried how this would impact Comcast’s retrans negotiations. Much of this will also depend on whether the deal includes the movie production studios, prior existing content, and a host of other details that impact the universe of content distribution these days.

Assuming the TV and/or radio stations are included, it’s not entirely clear what happens. The D.C. Circuit eliminated the FCC’s existing ban on cable/television cross ownership (which applied only to broadcast licenses in a cable system’s franchise area) in 2002 on the basis that the D.C. Circuit didn’t like it (Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FCC, 280 F.3d 1027 (D.C. Cir. 2002). That decision does not directly impact the FCC’s general obligation under Section 310(d) to ensure that any transfer of a license serves the public interest. Comcast and NBC will certain push the Fox Television decision for all its worth, arguing that the DC Circuit decision to vacate the rule means that there are no circumstances under which the FCC could prevent a broadcast/cable cross-ownership rules. Opponents will argue that while the D.C. Circuit vacated a per se rule that any cable/broadcast combination was contrary to the public interest, that has zero impact on the Commission’s responsibility to resolve the question of whether transfer of these licenses to this cable company serves the public interest. I expect much confusion and argument on this point. Assuming the FCC has jurisdiction in the first place.

Stay tuned . . . .

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