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The lines were clearly drawn Thursday as the House Communications and Internet Subcommittee began vetting the Comcast/NBCU deal.
In the opening statements of a 9:30 a.m. hearing that was recessed temporarily due to a series of recorded votes, Democrats talked about a careful and extensive review of potential anticompetitive harms, with a particular focus on access to online video, for which there are no program access regulations, the effects on broadband of combining the nation's top residential broadband provider with the fourth largest content provider and the effects on diversity and localism, among other topics.
Republicans countered that the deal was between two companies with little overlap and presented few anticompetitive threats. They warned against turning the review into a referendum on criticisms of media in general or attempting to apply conditions in a game of "what ifs."
For Committee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who said the deal required "very careful scrutiny," the review came down to a trio of key questions: If approved, 1) what would the benefits be to consumers a year later; 2) what might consumers now be getting that they will not continue to receive that year later; and 3) are there any conditions that should be applied to make sure the deal serves consumers' interests.
The always colorful Ed Markey (D-Mass.) former chair of the subcommittee, put it another way. He said the issue for consumers boiled down to "the seven c's."
"Essentially, though, for our constituents and Americans across the country, the issue before us really boils down to the 7 "C's" - Will this Combination of Communications Collossi Curtail Competition and Cost Consumers? That is the question that must be answered as this process moves forward." Markey said.
Joe Barton (R-Tex.), ranking Republican on Energy & Commerce, said he, for one, was glad to see NBCU and Comcast side-by-side at the witness table. Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts and NBCU President Jeff Zucker are scheduled to testify once the hearing resumes (Brian's father and Comcast founder Ralph Roberts was also in attendance).
Barton said that it was fit and proper to review the deal, but also said he hoped it would be a discussion of the deal rather than of "what ifs." He said that he was skeptical of the predictions that the deal was the end of the media world as we know it. He said companies should be allowed to take risks, seek out niche markets and use their natural competitive advantages.
He said there appear to be no major overlaps--which would raise horizontal concentration issues. In fact, he said it was his understanding that the Justice Department was not going to undertake a classical antitrust review of the deal.
Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee commented on the clear divide in the panel. She called it "amusing and puzzling" that intelligent people could be given the same set of statistics and data and arrive at such "vastly different" conclusions as to how the deal would affect the media world.
But the comments were not all divided into opposing camps.
Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was even more convinced than before that the deal needed a careful and thorough vetting on issues like access to programming and the continued survival of free over the air TV, but he also said there were potential benefits to the merger.
They included whether Comcast might, in fact, be a better long-term steward of NBC News than GE, potential investment in quality original programming, and support of free, over-the-air TV.
Waxman also pointed to protection of intellectual property online, calling online theft a serious problem.
Waxman said hard questions needed to be asked, but that he was keeping an open mind.
"There could be benefits that flow from this," he said.
Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) also tempered her concerns about a potential "monopolistic titan" with a shout-out to the potential benefit, and praise for Comcast as a success story.
She cited Comcast's "sincere commitment" to voluntary public interest conditions, but took a bit off of that by saying that was different from legal obligations. She
She said the deal was not just about private businesses, but the transfer of public property--FCC licenses. Eshoo, who is a co-sponsor of network neutrality legislation, also warned the deal could result in a "chokehold" over the transfer of information over the Internet.
Several Democrats suggested there needed to be network neutrality conditions on the combination of the largest residential broadband supplier and the fourth-largest content company.