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House Democrats challenge Comcast, NBC on deal

WASHINGTON — House Democrats challenged executives from Comcast Corp. and NBC Universal on Thursday to show that the cable TV operator's plan to take control of the NBC media empire won't hurt consumers and rivals.

In a hearing, members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee expressed concerns that the transaction could lead to a range of competitive harms, including higher cable TV rates and fewer video programming choices.

"The issue before us really boils down to the seven 'C's,'" said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the subcommittee on communications and technology. "Will this combination of communications colossi curtail competition and cost consumers?"

Markey and other House Democrats raised their concerns at the first of two congressional hearings Thursday. The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust and competition policy was to take up the issue later in the day.

Comcast, based in Philadelphia, is seeking federal approval to acquire a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co. The Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission are expected to sign off, but are likely to attach conditions. Input from Congress could sway the outcome of those regulatory reviews.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told the House subcommittee that the combination would produce "a more creative and innovative company that will meet consumer demands" and drive more innovation among competitors.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker added that significant investment made possible by the combination would help NBC Universal compete in a rapidly evolving entertainment business that has become a "media free-for-all."

Comcast, which serves a quarter of all U.S. households that pay for TV, already owns some cable channels, including E! Entertainment and the Golf Channel. The deal would give Comcast control of the NBC and Spanish-language Telemundo broadcast networks, popular cable channels such as CNBC, Bravo and Oxygen and the Universal Pictures movie studio.

Satellite TV companies and other rivals in the video business have warned that the combined company could drive up prices for — or even withhold — popular channels. And small independent programmers fear that Comcast cable systems could stop carrying channels that compete with its own, or relegate rival channels to premium tiers with fewer subscribers.

Public interest groups have also raised concerns that Comcast would begin charging for its media content online.

"There may be plenty of content outside Comcast-NBC, but will consumers have the same ability and opportunities to access that content — both on and off Comcast's distribution platforms — as they will content from Comcast?" asked Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Comcast has already made some pledges meant to ease such worries. Those include a vow not to move the NBC broadcast network to cable and a promise to expand public interest programming.

On Thursday, Roberts said the proposed transaction doesn't raise significant antitrust concerns because Comcast and NBC operate in highly competitive markets with a "lack of overlap." That point was echoed by several Republicans on the House subcommittee.

"We've heard some of the usual predictions that this is the end of the media world as we know it," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Put me down as skeptical on that."