Key regulators tight-lipped on Comcast/NBCU review


FCC’s Julius Genachowski and DOJ’s Christine Varney were more than willing to discuss process in an appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee on the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, but there was no team of senatorial horses with the power to drag specifics out of either.

During the course of the hearing, Genachowski indicated a willingness to take a new look at retransmission consent and program access rules.

The need to protect sensitive business information provided by the merging companies prohibits the regulators from getting too specific, particularly the DOJ, which is primarily responsible for the competitive aspects of the proposed merger. The FCC’s examination, which will focus more on public interest concerns, is expected to be more transparent.

Genachowski said that certain information was recently received from the companies, which will trigger the onset of a public comment period to be announced shortly.

Both regulators pledged to conduct thorough and efficient proceedings, recognizing that unnecessary delays will benefit nobody.

Genachowski noted that consumers have a strong interest in this merger, as do competitors of the companies involved, and said that all aspects of the merger would go under the microscope.

The usual year-end deadline-oriented retransmission controversies, and the retrans interest spike provided by the recent Oscar-tied battle between Cablevision and WABC-TV, spurred questions, in particular from John Kerry (D-MA). Genachowski said some have suggested that the regulatory framework for retransmission consent may have aged and that it is worthy of review – taking into account the shock consumers suffer when programming is pulled suddenly, alongside the rights of businesses to address their own needs. Kerry congratulated the FCC Chairman on artfully avoiding the question.

He offered similar comments on program access rules to Maria Cantwell (D-WA), noting that the terrestrial loophole was recently closed and admitting that further consideration may be needed.

Here are testimony summaries from the two government officials.

* Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: FCC must find that transfer of an FCC license is in the public interest. Public comment period is about to begin. FCC is already looking at similar past transactions to gain the benefit if hindsight – what worked, what didn’t? FCC will compile thorough record and address all issues that are raised. Examination is taking place amidst great change in the marketplace, but core values remain central regardless. Focus will be on competition, localism, diversity, public interest, innovation, First Amendment, other issues.

* Christine Varney, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, U.S. Department of Justice: Looking to benefit businesses and consumers, and spur innovation. DOJ will work closely with FCC; DOJ will focus on competition, FCC on public interest. DOJ cannot speak directly on this particular merger while it is under review, but it will analyze under time-honored set of antitrust procedures and principles. Will pass through if no harm is found; will go to court to prevent a merger if necessary. The public must be aware that the DOJ is restricted in its ability to make merger information public.