The Right Balance
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/6/2006 8:00:00 PM
Time Warner and Comcast took over their new systems last week following the FCC's approval last month of their $17.4 billion purchase of the bankrupt Adelphia. It wasn't a pretty example of bureaucracy at work, taking 404 days to accomplish. But the commission's decision featured measured compromise and suggests that the Kevin Martin-led FCC could get its act together on other substantive issues.
The Adelphia vote was a relative slam dunk, with Democrat Jonathan Adelstein joining the Republicans to allow Comcast and Time Warner to divvy up the Adelphia systems.
While the deal allowed Comcast and Time Warner to grow, both will still be under the 30% national penetration that was once the FCC standard. The FCC also applied conditions that will ensure access to local sports programming but did so through a binding-arbitration mechanism that encourages, but does not guarantee, the outcome of what are essentially private negotiations. We hope the FCC continues to encourage private negotiations as it weighs in on the new Time Warner/NFL Network carriage fight, too.
The FCC made Time Warner and Comcast also promise to submit complaints from leased-access programmers to arbitration, which will put to the test long-standing complaints of foot-dragging by cable operators.
The Adelphia accord showed an FCC that was mindful of business interests without being insensitive to competitive issues. As the number of media players has shrunk, that kind of level-headed regulating is promising.
Even frequent FCC critic Media Access Project (MAP) had some nice things to say. “Viewed in light of the initial predictions that this transaction would receive prompt and complete approval, the FCC has actually looked long and hard at the issues and imposed significant conditions on the deal,” said MAP's Andrew Schwartzman.
Behind the FCC's rationale for allowing Time Warner and Comcast to get bigger is the same argument that underpins the push for video-franchise reform: Speeding the development of fast broadband, Internet phone, video-on-demand and interactivity is a compelling government interest in a world where “community” is being redefined by electronic rather than geographic proximity. As Sen. Ted Stevens has noted, broadband is more a necessity than a convenience these days.
The FCC concluded that the public's interest in clearing up the protracted bankruptcy and giving Adelphia's subscribers the service they deserve—a pledged $1.6 billion in improvements—outweighed the potential downsides of letting the very big get a little bigger. We agree, but we also urge the FCC to upgrade its decision-making speed. In a broadband age, it can still be dial-up slow.
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