Summary:

The Comcast-NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) merger won’t close in 2010 but the regulatory process got a boost today from FCC Chairman Julius Genach…

Comcast NBCU

The Comcast-NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) merger won’t close in 2010 but the regulatory process got a boost today from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, when his draft order approving the deal was circulated to FCC commissioners. That should position the deal for an FCC vote early next year, with a possible closing by the end of January. The draft includes several conditions to ensure that the video market stays competitive.

In a news conference this morning, FCC officials wouldn’t disclose exactly what those conditions are, but said they generally relate to making sure that Comcast’s competitors can still get fair access to NBCU programming after this deal goes through. That may not assuage critics who are concerned about content access for Comcast’s ISP customers, but the net neutrality rules the FCC just passed are intended to cover distribution.

By sending out the draft order with a conditional recommendation, Genachowski is also putting his weight behind the merger, which means working with his fellow commissioners and also supporting it with Congress. The FCC’s next open meeting is Jan. 25.

The other key body when it comes to regulatory approval is the Justice Department, which is currently reviewing the merger. The DOJ generally looks at corporate mergers to make sure they comply with antitrust laws. Justice officials haven’t commented on the status of their review. Usually, DOJ issues its verdict on a proposed deal before the FCC.

Public interest groups, competitors, and some politicians have been vocal critics of the proposed merger of the U.S.’s largest cable operator with one of its top media companies from day one and are unlikely to be happy with any answer other than a firm “no.” They will continue to press hard for the most stringent conditions possible and to lobby publicly against the merger.

In a post on the company’s corporate blog, Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) Executive VP David Cohen wrote that the company is “gratified” by Genachowski’s proposed order, and noted that the proposed merger has had “one of the longest public comment periods in transaction review history,” with the filing of thousands of public comments. “Starting on the day of the deal’s announcement, we have emphasized that this transaction is pro-competitive, pro-consumer, and will deliver real public interest benefits.”

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