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Proposed Comcast-NBC merger spills over to retransmission fight

It was at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week on the proposed Comcast-NBC merger that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski made his comments about the commission reexamining retransmission policies. Perhaps that’s because the issues at stake are so intermingled with media mergers.

In what’s become familiar in Congress, Senate Republicans urged the FCC and Justice Department to get on with it and approve the merger quickly, skipping over the many issues the giant media union represents. However, the Democrats — mostly opposing the merger — see danger ahead in such a corporate paring.

Several Democratic senators are worried that Comcast could decide against carrying some independent cable programmers because it would benefit from favoring its own cable channels. “I can’t support this merger,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, said, citing complaints from her constituents when NBC blocked American Internet users from connecting to live streaming of Olympic events provided by Canadian Web sites.

NBC allowed access to some online Olympics programming only to subscribers of paid-television services with NBC’s cable, satellite and telecommunications partners. Cantwell said she was concerned those moves were a harbinger of what the combined company would do.

Writers Guild president John Wells, writer-producer of NBC’s successful drama series “ER” and “The West Wing,” told the Senate committee he’s concerned for another reason about the power that cable giant Comcast would hold if it gets control of NBC.

Wells testified that consolidation in the entertainment industry in recent decades has thinned the number of independent producers. That, he said, has created less varied programming for viewers and fewer opportunities for writers. He urged regulators, if they approve the merger, to require that the new company allocate a quarter of primetime programming on its broadcast and cable networks to be made by independent producers.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said he doesn’t favor a mandated quota for independent producers, but would seek to expand the number of them that its programmers carry on the merged network.