McAdams On: The FCC Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Federal Communications Commission finally inspired consensus. The conditions it imposed on the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal drew brickbats from all corners. Anti-consolidation factions grumbled. The pro-business camp carped. Democratic lawmakers wrung gloves. Republicans barked like guard dogs.

The FCC had to do something, because that’s what it’s there for--to make sure the biggest media merger in the nation’s history serves the “public interest.” The mere concept of such a thing serving the public interest seems fancifully archaic in the culture of full-on capitalism. Here’s what happens to me, personally, if the Comcast-NBCU merger is not in the public interest--nothing. Bring it.

Nonetheless, it was the FCC’s charter to devise public-interest standards for the merger and it did, in 279 pages of eye-bleeding prose. The conditions essentially require Comcast to behave and not drive competitors out of business. The company has to provide programming to other TV providers, fair carriage to networks it doesn’t own, open Internet access and a bunch of Eagle Scout-type things like cheap broadband and computers for poor households and schools. For seven years.

Comcast chief wizard Brian Roberts seemed okey-dokey with the requirements, probably because his chieftains hammered them out with the FCC. “This is a proud and exciting day for Comcast,” he said in a statement. “We are grateful for the leadership of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, the other FCC commissioners and their staffs for the months of hard work that went into reviewing an unprecedented number of documents and public comments.”

But that won’t do for Republicans. Noooo. Here’s Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, along with some of his GOP cohorts: “The FCC’s efforts to circumvent both the free market and courts by railroading job- and investment-harming net neutrality provisions, as well as regulation of nascent Internet-distributed video, represent more of a Chicago-style shakedown than the thoughtful deliberation this transaction deserved. We will be examining whether changes in the FCC’s transaction review process are needed as we exercise congressional oversight in the weeks to come.”

Get that Chi-town reference? Me-ow. Pffft Pffft. But neither were Democrats OK with the outcome, though it was crafted by a Democratic commission. Oy! Here’s West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee:

“I am very disappointed that the consumer protections were not stronger. . . . I wish the FCC had made an effort to hold down consumer cable rates in this transaction, because rates that rise as much as three times the rate of inflation deserve a close look.” (Or competition from alternative platforms, like over-the-air TV. But let’s not consider that a reason to block a spectrum hijack.)

Hollywood scribes were likewise disappointed, for their own reasons. Members of the Writers Guild of America West could be expected to object since their jobs are steadily being outsourced to software and bicycle couriers with Flip cameras.

“After a thorough review of yesterday’s announcements by the FCC and DOJ, the WGAW disagrees with their decisions approving the Comcast-NBCU merger. Even with the conditions... we believe this merger is anti-competitive and is not in the public interest or the interests of our members.”

Here’s the Parents Television Council expressing its “deep disappointment” over the merger approval. “On a far-too-regular basis, the American public is held hostage in disputes between television programmers and video distributors; and this regime is only likely to grow worse over time.”

That is the plan, of course. One of the merger conditions is that the conglomathon’s 26 TV stations provide “thousands of additional hours of local news and information programming.” Picture Disney’s Anne Sweeney holding two outstretched fingers to the head of a couch potato while Comcast deputy Steve Burke looks at his watch and yawns. That’s breaking news-cum-reality programming:

“‘The Biggest Hoser,’ starring people just like you being held for ransom by preternaturally attractive corporate executives!” Certainly that would be interesting in a very public way.
-- Deborah D. McAdams