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Cable Giant Comcast Buys NBC Universal


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

First this hour, we're going to dig into the deal that could create the most powerful entertainment company in the country. Comcast is already the nation's leading cable provider. This morning it announced plans to buy a controlling interest in NBC Universal from General Electric. The combined venture is valued at roughly $30 billion. In a moment, we'll explore what regulatory obstacles might stand in the way of the deal. First, with the latest, here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: GE agreed to give Comcast 51 percent of the company for just $6.5 billion in cash and intends to shed its entire stake in coming years. So Comcast would now own a broadcast network with such stars as Brian Williams of the "NBC Nightly News."

(Soundbite of TV show, "NBC Nightly News")

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Journalist): It was five years ago this very night when I took over this job from Tom Brokaw.

FOLKENFLIK: Such signature dramas as "Law & Order SVU."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Law & Order SVU")

Unidentified Man: Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel's assassination wing.

FOLKENFLIK: And such famous comics as Conan O'Brien.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien")

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Host): Yeah, that cadet was immediately assigned to work security at the next White House state dinner. Going to be there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOLKENFLIK: But the real headline here is the cable portfolio, including Bravo, the USA Network, SyFy, CNBC, MSNBC and others, which, taken together, generate a tremendous amount of cash flow and profits. Comcast's CEO and chairman Brian Roberts told reporters the deal was good for the company and for the public.

Mr. BRIAN ROBERTS (CEO and Chairman, Comcast): It's pro-consumer. It's going to accelerate, really, I believe, what consumers want, which is access to all the different types of content on different platforms at different times.

FOLKENFLIK: Here Roberts was talking in part about Comcast's TV Everywhere project, allowing people to watch video on demand online if they are cable or Internet subscribers. Comcast is not just a cable system giant, but a leading broadband Internet provider as well.

Mr. ROBERTS: There's a transition happening from physical to electronic delivery in all forms of media and this is going to play a big role in helping to make that really good for consumers.

FOLKENFLIK: And then Roberts added one more thing.

Mr. ROBERTS: It's a vertical integration deal.

FOLKENFLIK: Vertical integration. What Roberts is saying is that Comcast would own the studios that produce movies and TV shows as well as the networks, cable channels and Web sites running that content. And additionally, it would own the cable or broadband Internet providers delivering those shows to your televisions or computers. That's a pretty classic definition of soup to nuts.

Mr. BEN SCOTT (Program Director, Free Press): In the case of Comcast and NBC, the combination of these two players, who are both amongst the largest of their type in the industry, is unprecedented.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Ben Scott, program director for the public interest advocacy group, Free Press. He wants the Federal Communications Commission or the U.S. Justice Department to block the deal.

Mr. SCOTT: That kind of control on the industry is very worrisome to us. We think it runs afoul of antitrust standards and certainly runs afoul of the public interest standard in communications law.

FOLKENFLIK: Theoretically, Comcast could slow the delivery of online movies from rivals such as Netflix or charge cable competitors sky-high fees for carrying its shows. But Craig Moffett says Comcast is unlikely to gouge either competitors or consumers. Moffett is a senior analyst at the Sanford C. Bernstein investment company.

Mr. CRAIG MOFFETT (Senior Analyst, Sanford C. Bernstein): I've always been skeptical of whether or not there's any there there in the concept of vertical integration. It's not like it's something that hasn't been tried before. It's been tried by Time Warner and lots of others and never with very much success.

FOLKENFLIK: Internet pioneer AOL's takeover of the publishing and TV giant Time Warner was disastrous and it cracked apart. Moffett says Comcast is instead focus on the idea of steady profits from the vibrant NBC Universal cable channels.

Mr. MOFFETT: Brian Roberts and Comcast see this as simply an attractive opportunity to buy an interesting set of assets.

FOLKENFLIK: Comcast promises to protect consumer interests and the integrity of NBC's news division. And NBC's current chief, Jeff Zucker, will continue to lead the new joint venture, assuming the deal goes through.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.