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Critics: Merger Will Give Comcast ‘Inordinate Power to Shape Democratic Discourse’

WGA West, American Cable Association deliver harsh warning on proposed NBC U acquisition on the last day for public commenting to the FCC

The WGA West, consumer groups and small cable operators are offering a final warning to the FCC about Comcast’s quest to acquire NBC Universal.

On the last day to file comments with the Federal Communications Commission, some consumer groups urged the deal be rejected while the Writers Guild of America West and small cable operators urged major conditions be imposed.

Among those conditions: the WGAW wants the FCC to require a quarter of primetime series come from independent sources, while also mandating that Comcast and NBCU to use “arms length transactions” to value content.

“WGAW remains extremely concerned with the impact this media consolidation will have on our nation’s ability to access divers and independent news, information and entertainment across multiple distribution platforms,” said the guild in its comments. “Unless the FCC imposes additional requirements, this merger will not serve our nation’s public interest.”

The union went on to say that the integration of NBCU’s TV and film production, broadcast and cable networks with Comcast “will result in less competition” … “give Comcast inordinate power to shape democratic and political discourse” … and consolidates and “tightens control over the media landscape.”

“Despite Comcast’s claims to the contrary, we fear that the merged entity will undervalue internally produced content distribute through related entities.

WGAW also urged the FCC to set clear definitions for “independent” sources.

It said that while Comcast claims 33 percent of NBC’s Fall 2010 primetime schedule came for “independent producers,” in fact, only three of the 17 series were produced by “independent of vertically integrated media companies.”

The WGA East filed its comments earlier.

The American Cable Association in its comments and in a news conference today expressed concerns that Comcast would favor its own cable systems, as well as cable carriers that don’t compete when negotiating retransmission rights. 

The ACA is urging the FCC to require Comcast to negotiate retransmission of NBCU’s broadcast stations and Comcast’s local sports networks separately from packages for other Comcast and NBCU cable channels. It also wants the FCC to make it easier for small cable systems to go to arbitration.

Consumers Union, Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and the Media Access Project all urged the FCC to completely reject the deal, saying the agreement will give Comcast too much power to engage in anti-competitive behavior.

“The merger of the largest cable operator and one of the nation’s premier video content producers will fundamentally alter the structure of the video marketplace to the detriment of competition, innovations and diversity” they said, warning that it will impact not just TV and cable, but the online video market.

“By acquiring access to popular content controlled by NBCU, Comcast will have much more incentive and ability to withhold content that emerging online video competitors need to establish themselves.”

In its comments, Comcast said the “myriad public interest benefits — including concrete, verifiable public interest commitments  — outweigh any potential transaction-specific harms.”

Comcast officials also suggested the harms cited by critics aren’t real  — or, in many cases, are pre-existing, industry-wide grievances not appropriate to be dealt with in a review of a transaction.

Meanwhile, company officials added, the deal will  “reinvigorate local broadcasting.”

Comcast said the record “overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the proposed transaction will serve the public interest, convenience and necessity and will not harm competition or consumers.”