Winning regulatory approval for cable giant Comcast to acquire a majority stake in NBC Universal won’t be easy. Opponents are coming out of the woodwork. But that was anticipated and Comcast has already spelled out how it plans to sell the proposal to the FCC, antitrust regulators and Congress.
Among the documents that Comcast and General Electric posted for investors and reporters dealing with the NBCU transaction was a memo from Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, whose duties include government relations. In it, he spelled out the points that Comcast will make in trying to persuade the government that the deal to have Comcast acquire a 51% stake in NBCU from GE should be approved.
“While we believe that this transaction is, and will be determined to be, pro-competitive, proconsumer, and strongly in the public interest, we recognize that competitive concerns will be raised about the combination of such significant multiplatform assets in a single company,” he said, in what may be quite an understatement. “Therefore, we also intend to make a number of affirmative voluntary commitments in our applications for approval that we believe will effectively address any such concerns.”
Cohen spelled out how Comcast-NBCU will enhance its public interest commitments, saying the combined company will build on the “strengths and histories of Comcast and NBCU in children’s programming, diversity, and local programming, and reinforcing the combined companies’ commitment to broadcasting, the companies make the following commitments:
1. NBC has a proud history in broadcasting with both NBC and Telemundo. Notwithstanding the turbulence in the current media marketplace and the ongoing threats to the business model of a national broadcast network, the combined company remains committed to continuing to provide free over-the-air television through its 0&0 stations and through local broadcast affiliates across the nation. As we negotiate and renew agreements with our broadcast affiliates, we will continue our cooperative dialogue with our affiliates toward a business model to sustain free over-the-air service that can be workable in the evolving economic and technological environment.
2. The NBC owned-and-operated broadcast stations (“0&OS “) have a demonstrated record of quality local programming in major markets around the country. Comcast also has demonstrated its commitment to local programming, including sports and public affairs, and in providing support for public, educational, and government (PEG) access programming. We want to use the combined resources of NBC and Comcast to strengthen localism:
a. We intend to preserve and enrich the output of local news, local public affairs, and other public interest programming on NBC 0&0 stations. Through the use of Comcasts On Demand and On Demand Online platforms, time slots on cable channels, and use of certain windows on the 0&0 schedules, we believe we can expand the availability of all types of local and public interest programming.
b. With respect to PEG channels, we will not migrate PEG channels to digital delivery on any Comcast cable system until the system has converted to all-digital distribution (Ie., until all analog channels have been eliminated), or until a community otherwise agrees to digital PEG channels, whichever comes first.
c. To enhance localism and strengthen educational and governmental access programming, we will also develop a platform to host PEG content On Demand and On Demand Online within three years of closing.
3. Since NBCU was acquired by GE in 1986, the owners have abided by a policy (summarized in a filing with the FCC) of ensuring that the content of NBC’s news and public affairs programming would not be influenced by the non-media interests of General Electric.
a. The combined company will continue these policies with respect to the news programming organizations of all NBCU networks and stations, and will extend these policies to the potential influence of each of the owners.
b. To ensure such independence, the combined companies will continue in effect the position and authority of the NBC News ombudsman to address any issues that may arise.
4. Comcast and NBCU have strong track records in children’s programming and children’s issues. The combined company will make an expanded commitment to meeting the viewing needs of children, and the needs of parents to better control their family’s viewing.
a. We will use Comcast’s On Demand and On Demand Online platforms and a portion of the NBC O&Os’ digital broadcast spectrum to speak to kids. We intend to develop additional opportunities to feature children’s content on all available platforms.
b. We reaffirm our commitment to provide clear and understandable on-screen TV Ratings information for all covered programming across all networks (broadcast and cable) of the combined company, and to apply the cable industry’s best practice standards for providing on-screen ratings information in terms of size, frequency, and duration.
c. In an effort to constantly improve the tools and information available for parents, Comcast will expand its growing partnership with Common Sense Media (“CSM”) a highly respected organization offering enhanced information to help guide family viewing decisions. Comcast will work to creatively incorporate CSM information in its emerging On Demand and On Demand Online platforms and other advanced platforms, and will look for more opportunities for CSM to work with NBCU.
5. Comcast and NBCU have been major forces in bringing diverse programming to American television audiences. With the new company’s interests in Telemundo and Mun2, and with Comcast’s founding role in TVOne and its extensive offerings of channels meeting the needs of diverse viewers, we will be second to none in providing and promoting diverse programming. But we want to do even more:
a. We intend to expand the availability of over-the-air programming to the Hispanic community utilizing a portion of the digital broadcast spectrum of the Telemundo O&O’s (as well as offering it to Telemundo affiliates) to enhance the current programming of Tel em undo and Mun2.
b. We will use Comcast’s On Demand and On Demand Online platforms to feature Telemundo programming.
c. We intend to continue expanding the availability of Mun2 on the Comcast cable, On Demand, and On Demand Online platforms.
The memo makes several other points, as well, designed to hit the hot buttons of regulators and lawmakers. Some of them address the position that Comcast will be in as both a program provider and the nation’s largest cable MSO. One of those is a voluntary commitment to extend the FCC’s program access rules pertaining to cable/satellite networks to negotiations with other cable companies for retransmission rights to the NBC and Telemundo O&O stations.
RBR-TVBR observation: What stands out is that rather than wanting to exit the broadcasting side of the business, as many expected Comcast to do at NBCU, the NBC/Telemundo O&O station groups are being used as a major selling point for the deal. “Localism” is a hot issue at the FCC and Comcast is emphasizing how the NBCU television will play a big role in having the merged company promote local programming and public service.