Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) had some toughly-worded
questions for Comcast and NBCU in a written follow-up to a Hill hearing on the
proposed deal, including asking if the companies would be willing to divest
all their Internet TV interests, stop bundling channels, and tie cable
rate increases to the rate of inflation. It is essentially an anti-media
consolidation wish list, according to a copy of written questions submitted to
the witnesses following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing
two weeks ago.
At that hearing, Feingold raised concerns about the deal with witnesses that
included Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts and NBCU President Jeff Zucker.
The tone of the written questions was decidedly accusatory.
"Mr. Zucker and Mr. Roberts, I see that nowhere in your statements do you
mention lower cable rates as a consumer benefit of your merger, so at least you
are not trying to sell us that bill of goods," Feingold wrote.
"But I'd like to know what you think the merger's impact will be on cable
rates. Specifically, will you add a commitment to your public interest
commitments that would tie the increase in cable rates to inflation and will
you also lock in the rates you charge for content either for cable network
carriage or through retransmission consent?"
He also added:
"Mr. Zucker and Mr. Roberts, it is common practice now to require a
television distributor like a rival cable company to carry several less popular
cable channels in order to get a cable channel that they and consumers really
want. Would you be willing to stop this practice and agree to offer fair rates
for individual channels?"
Despite the criticisms from Feingold and a few others, notably Senator Al
Franken (D-Minn.), the deal is widely expected to go through, though the $30
billion question (the value of the deal) is what conditions may be placed on it
by either the FCC or Justice. For example, Comcast has already volunteered to
accept program access conditions on the deal regardless of what happens to
those FCC rules in the courts, adding that to a number of conditions it has
already proposed itself.
But Feingold even had troubles with those, questioning the time limits on
the conditions. "If these provisions are in the public interest and help
prevent competitive harm," he asked, "why aren't these indefinite
commitments or permanent firewalls instead?"