Comcast CEO: We Won’t Block Rivals
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