Proposed merger of Comcast, NBC feeds fears about media influence

By Richard Siklos

Al Franken, Minnesota’s freshman senator, bears little resemblance to Al Franken, onetime Saturday Night Live funnyman. At a sub-committee grilling of the top executives from NBC Universal and Comcast over their proposed media mega-merger, Franken had none of the self-doubt of his famously sheepish SNL character, Stuart Smalley. Instead, he delivered an aggressive “don’t play a playa” message when it came to voluntary concessions NBC and Comcast had made to help seal the deal. “You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t trust these promises,” Franken said. “And that’s from experience in this business.”

Franken accused Comcast CEO Brian Roberts of coming to his office and spinning him about rules that govern which channels are carried by cable and how consumers access them. Essentially, Franken thought Roberts was praising rules designed to protect consumers from mega-mergers like this one while simultaneously challenging the same rules on the basis that they violate the First Amendment.

Franken then turned to NBC chief Jeff Zucker. “Look, we’re friends. …I loved my time at NBC, I want you to know that.” Those caveats aside, Franken criticized regulatory changes in the 1990s that allowed production studios and TV networks to be owned by the same company, leading to a wave of consolidation and a heavy reliance on studio-owned product despite promises to the commission that independent producers would not be shut out.

There will be a year or so of further regulatory grandstanding and wrangling before the NBC-Comcast deal is done. The reality is there is little basis for regulators to prevent Comcast and NBC from combining. From an anti-trust perspective, the two companies don’t really compete.

But Franken was tapping into a bigger, ingrained fear—that the bigger these media companies get, the less weight consumers, or viewers, will have in influencing what they do.

That can be hard to argue, though, given that past media mega-mergers have generated mixed results. Successes such as Disney-Capital Cities and Time Warner-Turner are overshadowed by flops like Viacom-CBS, AOL-Time Warner and Vivendi-Universal. With their merger, Comcast-NBC will control roughly 24 percent of cable subscribers in the country and account for 12 percent of what is viewed on television.

But this merger is really about what television is turning into; Roberts noted that Comcast is spending $1 billion on a super-fast Internet service called wideband—forget broadband!—and in this new era Roberts promised to be “reliable stewards for the national treasures of NBC and NBC News.” Apparently, Minnesotans will be watching with a wary eye.