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Comcast CEO: We Won’t Block Rivals

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) won’t take advantage of the huge programming assets it would control through its merger with NBC Universal to block rivals like WideOpenWest Holdings LLC (WOW) from getting access to online programming for "TV Everywhere" products, chairman and CEO Brian Roberts insisted at a House hearing Wednesday. (See Comcast to Take Control of NBC Universal.)

Much of the hearing focused on whether Comcast, which stands to gain networks ranging from CNBC to USA Network from the NBCU deal, would charge rival distributors stiffer fees for those networks, or if the company would prevent competitors from offering online access to some programming or from developing products similar to Comcast's TV Everywhere product, Fancast Xfinity TV. (See Comcast to Expand 'Xfinity' to DSL Subs.)

“We have been denied that access,” WOW CEO Colleen Abdullah testified, claiming that Comcast is trying to stop the cable overbuilder from getting access, for WOW's own TV Everywhere efforts, to shows from a network that Comcast owns.

“If I don’t have access to the content, where does my customer go? To my competitor, to Comcast,” Abdullah, whose company competes head-to-head with Comcast in Chicago, told the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.

“I’m not aware what she’s referring to,” Roberts said when asked about Abdullah’s claims, adding that WOW should have access to content owned by Comcast “at reasonable terms.”

Asked if Comcast would look to cut exclusive deals with programmers for Fancast Xfinity, Roberts said, “absolutely not.”

Roberts also argued that revenue from Comcast’s programming division has become more vital to the company as it continues to lose video subscribers each year to WOW, DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), and other TV competitors (it lost 623,000 basic subs in 2009). “We will be well served to make that content available to all of the growing players in the marketplace,” he said.

Consumer Federation of America (CFA) president Mark Cooper didn't buy into that argument, pointing out that the MSO has increased sales of triple-play packages to consumers and increased its rates. “Comcast’s sob story about losing cable subscribers is a dog that doesn’t hunt,” Cooper said.

Boxee-Hulu dustup resurfaces
Committee members also pressed Roberts and NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker on how they would treat over-the-top video providers like Boxee . And Rep Rick Boucher (D-Va.) asked Zucker to explain why Hulu LLC , which is owned in part by NBCU, decided last year to stop Boxee from giving users of its Internet video service access to Hulu programming. (See Hulu Blocks Boxee's Workaround Solution, Ronen: Boxee Isn't a Cable Killer, and Comcast: NBCU Deal Won't Kill Web TV Players ).

Zucker said NBC Universal doesn’t “preclude distribution deals” with over-the-top firms, but suggested that Boxee would have to cough up cash if it wanted to let its users watch Hulu shows and movies on a TV. “We have always said we’re open to negotiations,” he added.

Moving to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program access rules, Roberts argued that regulators shouldn’t place new program access rules on the Comcast-NBC merger, and if changes were made, they should affect all industry players. “I think any revisiting should again go across the whole industry.”

Roberts also looked to deflate arguments from critics who have said the merger would prevent independent programmers from gaining carriage on Comcast cable systems, reiterating a commitment to launch at least two independently owned networks each year, beginning in 2011.

Roberts also pledged that there would be “no massive layoffs” following the Comcast-NBC merger, and no closure of facilities. “We will grow three great American businesses over time, and make them more successful -- not cut them.”

There appeared to be more support for quick FCC and FTC approval of the merger from Republican members of the committee, including Rep Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who noted that there has been no timeline established for such approval.

The House hearing was only the first grilling of the day for Roberts and Zucker. The CEOs are also testifying this afternoon at a separate hearing held by the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights.

— Steve Donohue, Special to Cable Digital News

chipsales 12/5/2012 | 4:43:20 PM
re: Comcast CEO: We Won’t Block Rivals Comcast owns Versus and is holding Direct TV hostage over the rights. Either Direct TV pays what Comcast demands or they donG«÷t get the channel. What would be different about the NBC situation. How can the CEO say he wonG«÷t use the NBC content as a weapon against his rivals? Does anyone really believe that? Come onG«™
Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 4:43:20 PM
re: Comcast CEO: We Won’t Block Rivals

Boxee chief Avner Ronen chimed in on Zucker's testimony this afternoon regarding to whole Hulu-Boxee blocking incident.


Zucker said today it was Hulu management that called for the Boxee block. Earlier, Hulu chief Jason Kilar said the call came from NBC, a Hulu stakeholders. So it all depends on how one defines "management" here. Ronen also took issue with Zucker's characterization that Hulu precludes access to those that obtain it "illegally."


"Boxee uses a web browser to access Hulu’s content – just like Firefox or Internet Explorer. Boxee users click on a link to Hulu’s website and the video within that page plays. We don’t 'take' the video. We don’t copy it. We don’t put ads on top of it. The video and the ads play like they do on other browsers or on Hulu Desktop. And it certainly is legal to do so."


Ronen also responded to Zucker's offer that they are open to negotiations. "That has not been our experience, but at this point, we will take Mr. Zucker’s offer at face value and will contact him," the Boxee chief wrote.


Ah, politics…

Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 4:43:20 PM
re: Comcast CEO: We Won’t Block Rivals

Al Franken certainly doesn't believe it. He went ballistic today in the second hearing.


Franken: "You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t trust these promises, and that is from experience in this business."


JB

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