Will Comcast/NBC Need FCC Approval? And How Would That Play Out?

The industry news is abuzz with the upcoming Comcast/NC Universal Deal. According to recent reports, Comcast would buy 51% of NBC Universal (assuming Vivendi, which owns 20% at the moment, agreed with the terms). But beyond this general framework, it’s unclear whether all the assets held by NBC Universal would be included in the deal. Whether or not the FCC has jurisdiction hinges on this question.

The FCC does not have general jurisdiction over deals pertaining to content. NBC Universal owns lots of radio and television stations. Transfer of the licenses to the new Comcast-controlled entity would require FCC approval. But if the deal does not include the licenses, the FCC would probably lack a jurisdictional hook. Review of the deal would lie strictly in antitrust — at either the DoJ or Federal Trade Commission (FTC). From an antitrust perspective, the deal raises some concerns given the concentration of content and Comcast’s position vis-a-vis other existing subscription television providers (e.g., FIOS, DIRECTV) and potential new competitors (e.g., Netflix and other “over the top” video providers)). It may also concern broadcasters, both NBC affiliates worried about the change in management and other broadcasters worried how this would impact Comcast’s retrans negotiations. Much of this will also depend on whether the deal includes the movie production studios, prior existing content, and a host of other details that impact the universe of content distribution these days.

Assuming the TV and/or radio stations are included, it’s not entirely clear what happens. The D.C. Circuit eliminated the FCC’s existing ban on cable/television cross ownership (which applied only to broadcast licenses in a cable system’s franchise area) in 2002 on the basis that the D.C. Circuit didn’t like it (Fox Television Stations, Inc. v. FCC, 280 F.3d 1027 (D.C. Cir. 2002). That decision does not directly impact the FCC’s general obligation under Section 310(d) to ensure that any transfer of a license serves the public interest. Comcast and NBC will certain push the Fox Television decision for all its worth, arguing that the DC Circuit decision to vacate the rule means that there are no circumstances under which the FCC could prevent a broadcast/cable cross-ownership rules. Opponents will argue that while the D.C. Circuit vacated a per se rule that any cable/broadcast combination was contrary to the public interest, that has zero impact on the Commission’s responsibility to resolve the question of whether transfer of these licenses to this cable company serves the public interest. I expect much confusion and argument on this point. Assuming the FCC has jurisdiction in the first place.

Stay tuned . . . .

And Now for Something Completely Different . . . .

The Onion explains the FCC’s indecency rules.

FCC Okays Nudity On TV If Itâs Alyson Hannigan

It should be noted, of course, that the inquiry is very fact specific. For example, a sex scene between Alyson Hannigan (“Willow”) and Amber Benson (“Tara”) would have strong artistic merit — especially if it included Sarah Michelle Gellar (“Buffy”). By contrast, if it took place during Seventh Season and featured Hannigan and Iyari Limon (“Kennedy”), it would merit a significant fine because Kennedy was a really stupid character and the entire relationship between Willow and Kennedy made absolutely no sense. In fact, even without the indecency, the FCC should have fined UPN for pretty much the entire second half of the seventh season.

By contrast, J. Michael Strazynsky should be fined for not making it profoundly unambiguous whether or not Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) got it on in Divided Loyalties.

Such artistic programming can not only help avoid indecency fines, but it can be a serious assist next time you need a merger waiver. nudge nudge wink wink.

Finally, if any of the South Park characters appear nude, not only should the FCC fine every cable system in the country, but millions are likely to go blind.

Stay tuned . . . .

The Consistency of Kevin Martin and the Faith Based FCC

So many people are mad at Kevin Martin these days, but for so many different things. He is either a “tool of industry” or “interfering with the market,” depending on whom you ask. And no one seems more confused about this than the ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, Joe Barton (R-Tx).
Mr. Barton understands all bout de-regulating. That’s what good Republicans do, after all. But he cannot understand why Mr. Martin is making such trouble for the “highly competitive” cable industry. As reported in this article:

“It’s been said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the committee’s senior Republican. “If that’s the case, we could use a few hobgoblins at the FCC.”

Barton complained that Martin plans to ease the cross-ownership ban while doing little on other media ownership restrictions and is attempting to limit the number of subscribers one cable system can reach.

“It baffles me how the same FCC can appropriately eliminate regulations for some segments of industry because of increased competition, and at the very same time refuse to deregulate or even impose more regulation on segments of industry that are creating that very competition,” he said.

Democrats, of course, accept that Mr. Martin as a Republican should be a tool of industry. To the extent they wonder about any apparent inconsistencies, they attribute it to Martin being a shill for the telcos. This, of course, does not explain why Martin denied Verizon’s request for deregulation in six major cities or why Martin told Verizon to bugger off on modifying C Block. But if he isn’t an industry tool, why did he ram through the sale of Tribune and waive FCC regs so that Tribune could appeal in the DC Circuit and try to get the entire newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban repealed?

While armchair psychology and analysis based on shreds of available information is always a perilous past-time, I will argue below that Kevin Martin is actually extremely consistent in his decisions and his management style. I say this neither as a criticism or as praise. But pivotal to understanding the actions of the FCC and therefore to exercising my stock in trade of effective advocacy is trying to make some guess on what actually drives the current FCC Chairman in making decisions. Feld’s Second Law of Public Policy states: “Public policy is made by human beings.” (OK, I know Clausewitz said it first about war, but the principle still holds.) So understanding the human beings making policy is a critical step in influencing policy — even if we understand them poorly.

Besides, it’s fun.

Guesses below . . .

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Comcast Morally Outraged That America Channel Adjusts Business Model to FCC Rules. Cats outraged when mice fight back.

Some of you may recall The America Channel and their efforts to blow the whistle on Comcast’s exercise of market power in the cable programming world. As part of resolution of the Adelphia transaction, the Commission declined to provide any specific relief for The America Channel. They did promise to have a general rulemaking on the carriage complaint process (whereby independent programmers complain that cable operators have illegally discriminated against them) and the leased access process (whereby independents can lease access to the cable system) (a proceeding the Commission announced last month). The Commission also created special protection for regional sports networks (RSNs) so that Comcast could not do unto others as they did unto Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. As part of the FCC’s order approving the Adelphia transaction, a regional sports network can demand carriage on Comcast or Time Warner, and can require that an arbitrator resolve the cost issues.

TAC, seeing that it would get nowhere with its old programming idea, proceeded to reinvent itself as a regional sports network. It has deals with a number of NCAA Division I schools — particularly for the less popular women’s sports, which it will bring to the various regions the schools are in. TAC will pay for the production costs but will not pay for the games themselves, a reversal of the usual royalty agreement I understand. TAC has gotten carriage on cable overbuilder RCN, provided TAC can reach the critical mass of carriage on other providers to achieve viability.

So how’s that working out, and what will the FCC do? More below . . . .

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Donna Edwards v. Al Wynn: A Microcosm in More Ways Than One

Art Brodsky has written an excellent blog post at TPMCafe on how progressive lawyer Donna Edwards’ demorcatic primary challenge for incumbent democrat Al Wynn’s seat has gone virtually unnoticed in the press.

Like the much better covered competition between incumbent Joe Leiberman and challenger Ned Lamont, the Edwards/Wynn race pits frustrated progressive democrats against a multi-term incumbent they feel has become too much a part of the system. But for all the coverage of the challenge to Senator Joe Leiberman up in Connecticut, no one in my local media has seen fit to cover exactly the same sort of challenge right here in our own backyard.

This makes the Edwards/Wynn race much more a microcosm for elections around the country. We bemoan the high rate of incumbent reelection, but fail to notice the local media plays in all this. Not by exhibiting famed media bias, but by refusing to cover local races, denying challengers an opportunity to discuss issues with the electorate and denying challengers the exposure they need to overcome the enormous advantage an incumbent has in name recognition and organization.

Contrary to popular belief, we really can do something to give challengers like Donna Edwards a fighting chance to get the exposure they need to make incumbents actively defend their seats and worry about being accountable to voters every two years. The FCC has siting in front of it a rulemaking that would give candidates free air time and force broadcasters to provide substantive coverage of local news.

At the same time, the FCC also has in front of it proposals that would make the situation for political challengers even more difficult. If the Republican majority on the FCC succeeds in relaxing the media ownership rules and allows the same company to own a daily paper, up to three television stations, the local cable system, and radio stations all in the same market, that company decides who gets exposure and who disappears from view. The odds may be bad for challengers now, but they could indeed be much worse.

Details below.

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Lafayette we are here!

The city of Lafayette, LA approved a $125 million municipal bond referendum to build out a municipal network by a hefty 62% to 38% margin. Contrast this with the ease with which state franchising is moving through the TX legislature now that SBC has dropped the anti-muni provision. There’s a lesson here, folks . . .

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