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FCC chief seeks conditions on Comcast buy

Genachowski wants assurances rivals can access NBC content

(Matt Rourke/Associated Press/File 2009)
By Joelle Tessler
Associated Press / December 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing regulatory conditions to ensure that cable TV giant Comcast Corp. cannot stifle competition in the video market once it takes control of NBC Universal.

The conditions laid out yesterday by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski are intended to guarantee that satellite providers and other rival television services can still carry marquee NBC programming and that new Internet video distributors can get the content they need to grow and compete.

Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal could have profound consequences for the nascent market for Internet video — a market that could eat into Comcast’s core cable TV business if enough consumers drop their cable subscriptions in favor of low-cost alternatives online.

Genachowski wants to ensure that Comcast won’t be able to use its control over NBC’s vast media empire to withhold content from emerging online competitors such as Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and Apple Inc. — locking consumers into costly monthly cable bills to get access to a wide range of popular programming.

Genachowski now needs at least two of the other four FCC commissioners to back his proposal, and he is likely to make modifications to win the support he needs to cap off the yearlong regulatory review.

The FCC is expected to approve the deal, with conditions, early next year.

Comcast suggested that it could accept what it believes to be in Genachowski’s proposal. In a statement, the company said the proposal would ensure that the deal delivers “real public interest benefits’’ and “enable us to operate the NBC Universal and legacy Comcast businesses in an appropriate way.’’

Comcast is seeking government approval to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co. for $13.8 billion in cash and assets.

The combination would give the nation’s largest cable TV company control over the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks, popular cable channels including CNBC, Bravo, and Oxygen and the Universal Pictures movie studio. It would also give Comcast a roughly 30 percent stake in Hulu.com, which has become a popular online platform for broadcast programming from NBC, ABC, and Fox.

FCC officials wouldn’t disclose details about the conditions yesterday because commissioners were still reviewing Genachowski’s proposal.

But two people described them to the Associated Press. They had knowledge of the details but spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential.

One measure aims to guarantee that satellite operators, phone firms, and rival cable TV services can still get access to NBC broadcast and cable channels, Comcast’s regional sports networks, and other must-have programming at reasonable prices. Another condition would require Comcast to make NBC Universal programming available to Internet video distributors under certain circumstances.