FCC Approves the Comcast-NBC Union With Some Odd Conditions

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This afternoon, the Federal Communications Commission announced (.pdf) the happy marriage of Comcast and NBC. It approved the cable company's acquisition of the network, after some heated debate about what it would mean for a cable company to own a broadcast network. Of course, the acquisition is approved only with certain conditions. Some of them make sense, but others seem a little strange.

Those sensible conditions are also pretty predictable. Critics of the union were concerned that Comcast could stifle competition of other networks for its subscribers. They also worried that the company could engage in other anti-competitive behavior like denying online video for NBC, forcing customers to obtain both internet and cable plans if they wanted access to NBC shows.

The first set of conditions seeks to prevent such anti-competitive behavior. It includes requiring Comcast to allow other TV service providers to obtain or license NBC content at reasonable market rates. It also has various provisions to ensure that online competition isn't stifled, by again forcing Comcast to provide market-prices to competitors for its NBC content. And the rules also force Comcast to continue carrying other networks for its subscribers. So CBS fans who subscribe through Comcast don't need to worry. Finally, it seeks to ensure that local programming will not be harmed by the merger.

Those all make a fair amount of sense. But the FCC's consent also comes with some odd conditions, which it says Comcast and NBC thought up to sweeten the deal for the government (read: politics). Here they are, from the press release:

Broadband Adoption and Deployment. Comcast will make available to approximately 2.5 million low income households: (i) high-speed Internet access service for less than $10 per month; (ii) personal computers, netbooks, or other computer equipment at a purchase price below $150; and (iii) an array of digital-literacy education opportunities. Comcast will also expand its existing broadband networks to reach approximately 400,000 additional homes, provide broadband Internet access service in six additional rural communities, and provide free video and high-speed Internet service to 600 new anchor institutions, such as schools and libraries, in underserved, low-income areas.
Localism. To further broadcast localism, Comcast-NBCU will maintain at least the current level of news and information programming on NBC's and Telemundo's owned-and-operated ("O&O") broadcast stations, and in some cases expand news and other local content. NBC and Telemundo O&O stations also will provide thousands of additional hours of local news and information programming to their viewers, and some of its NBC stations will enter into cooperative arrangements with locally focused nonprofit news organizations. Additional free, on-demand local programming will be made available as well.
Children's Programming. Comcast-NBCU will increase the availability of children's programming on its NBC and Telemundo broadcast stations, and add at least 1,500 more choices to Comcast's on-demand offerings for children. It will provide additional on-screen ratings information for original entertainment programming on the Comcast-NBCU broadcast and cable television channels and improved parental controls. Comcast-NBCU also will restrict interactive advertising aimed at children 12 years old and younger and provide public service announcements addressing children's issues.
Programming Diversity. Building on Comcast's voluntary commitments in this area, we require Comcast-NBCU to increase programming diversity by expanding its over-the-air programming to the Spanish language-speaking community, and by making NBCU's Spanish-language broadcast programming available via Comcast's on demand and online platforms. As noted above, Comcast also will add at least 10 new independent channels to its cable offerings.
Public, Educational, and Governmental ("PEG") Programming. Comcast will safeguard the continued accessibility and signal quality of PEG channels on its cable television systems and introduce new on demand and online platforms for PEG content.

Those might be worthy endeavors, but it's hard to see how they have any relevance to this acquisition. For example, will children's programming really be stifled by the union? It's hard to see how. Obviously, plenty of networks will still program for children, and there's little indication that suddenly Comcast would want to block it. Obviously there's plenty of demand for kids shows. "Programming diversity" is also a seemingly random requirement. And why does the acquisition suddenly necessitate the need for more access to low income households?

Whether necessary or not, these requirements are a part of the FCC's consent for these two media companies to become one. According to the press release, they will generally remain in effect for seven years.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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