Comcast-NBCU: An Oil Spill Waiting to Happen?

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Big banks, BP and… Comcast NBCU? Participants of a public forum on the proposed Comcast-NBCU joint venture that was held by the FCC at Northwestern University Law School today referenced the financial meltdown and the oil spill to warn of the consequences the deal could have on the online video marketplace, with FCC Commissioner Michael J. Cobbs invoking “oil-soaked beaches and lost livelihoods across the Gulf” as an example of the consequences that could come from lack of regulation.

The forum, which is ongoing and being broadcast online until 8 p.m. CDT (6 p.m. PDT), included a panel on online video distribution issues, and the majority of participants expressed reservationa about giving the Comcast and GE the go-ahead without any significant concessions. Dish Network Deputy General Counsel Jeffrey Blum said that government oversight was “absolutely necessary” to prevent Comcast from using offerings like its Fancast Xfinity TV Everywhere platform in an anti-competitive way.

Blum suggested that Comcast could theoretically exempt Xfinity from its 250 GB broadband cap, and NetCoalition executive director Markham C. Erickson said that the company could pressure smaller programmers to provide content only to Xfinity and not to publicly available sites.

Multiple participants also referenced Comcast’s past BitTorrent throttling measures as proof that the company is willing to interfere with competitive content distribution methods. “Comcast has already shown its cards,” said Blum. Free Press President and CEO Josh Silver echoed these concerns and urging the FCC to reject the deal, warning that “anti-competitive incentives would be part of the DNA” of the combined media conglomerate.

Participants disagreed on the question of whether online video could become a substitute for cable subscriptions, with Nielsen vice chair Susan Whiting calling the threat of cord cutting “slightly exaggerated.” However, Erickson said that more than 800,000 U.S. households have already left cable in favor of online video, and Sezmi’s Travis Parsons said that many of his company’s customers are cord cutters. Cardozo Law School Professor Susan Crawford finally admitted: “I’ve cut the cord, it’s clear to me that it can be done,” but she also called the process of ridding yourself from cable “scary.”

The hearing is part of the FCC’s effort to open up its consultations to the public. Copps, who led the hearing, called an approval of the merger “a very steep climb” in his opening remarks and criticized Comcast and NBCU for providing inadequate assurances and concessions. The FCC had recently stopped the 180-day transaction time clock on the deal until both companies provided more information, but announced today that the clock is back on after both companies resubmitted their responses.

Related content on GigaOm Pro: A Closer Look at Comcast’s NBC Universal Acquisition (subscription required)

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