After months and of debate on the pros, cons, ups, downs, overs, unders, twists and turns of the proposed Comcast-NBCU merger, the FCC finally put things into high gear this week by circulating the order that will eventually lead to approval of the deal. Even opponents long ago conceded that the deal will win the government’s okay. For months, the battle has really revolved around one question: What will be the conditions?
Despite a background press briefing by FCC staffers on Thurs morning, that question remains vastly unanswered as the staffers immediately declined to give any specifics. That’s to be expected and frankly appropriate. The agency shouldn’t be publicly floating trial balloons right now. That would only gum up a process that has already taken too long. As Comcast’s David Cohen noted in his blog on Thurs after the order went into circulation, the Comcast-NBCU review has been one of the longest in FCC history with “the filing of thousands of substantive comments, and the production of over 500,000 pages of documents by Comcast.” Reasonable people can debate the merits of this deal and its conditions, but we all have to admit that the review process has been exhaustive to say the least.
Interestingly, the final stages of this merger review comes in the wake of the agency’s recent net neutrality order, which set some rules for Internet traffic but certainly gave big players like Comcast and Verizon a much better deal than they might have expected a year ago. The fate of online video, along with program access and a few other snags, continue to frighten Comcast-NBCU competitors and even small cable operators who have challenged Philly Papa Bear over what they fear will be unprecedented leverage during carriage negotiations.
With the order now on circulation, the FCC expects to vote on the merger within four weeks or so, which means chilly January nuptials for Comcast and the Peacock. Still, it’s worth noting that the FCC has plenty of wiggle room over the next month. Comcast and NBCU may have a general idea of what conditions will be included in the order (Comcast actually proposed many of them in advance to win allies and head off critics early in the process), but lots can happen as this draft order circulates between the five FCC commissioners’ offices.
These are the times in which last-minute lobbying can lead to tweaked language and even new provisions, some of which can seem innocuous but end up forcing the merged companies to shift business strategy. In addition, several lawmakers in Congress from both sides of the aisle are uneasy with the FCC’s net neutrality order. Any attempt to roll back or even scale back that order could ultimately affect whether Comcast-NBCU cold someday fulfill the worst fears of merger proponents, especially when it comes to online video. So how can the FCC set merger conditions when no one knows whether the net neutrality rules will stand? Good question. But in Washington, agencies take action. It’s what they do. The results of those decisions are never assured.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).