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Comcast appears poised to win the blessing of one regulatory body reviewing its proposed $30 billion takeover of NBC Universal, as officials at the Federal Communications Commission have indicated that the agency could approve the merger as early as next month.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has circulated an order among the commissioners that would grant conditional approval to the merger, imposing public-interest safeguards to protect the distribution of competing video content, both online and on Comcast's cable platform.
Announced more than a year ago, the merger of the nation's biggest Internet service and cable provider with an entertainment giant has come under heavy fire from advocacy groups, who have warned that the pairing of media distribution and content will inevitably lead to higher prices for consumers and limited access to rival programming.
Comcast, reacting to word that the FCC is nearing approval of the deal, reiterated the preemptive public-interest commitments it has been touting since going public with retails of the merger last December, anticipating a lengthy regulatory review. The cable giant has promised to boost local news content on NBC owned-and-operated network affiliate stations, for instance, and has committed to preserve and enhance the diversity of programming upon concluding the merger.
"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," Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said of the FCC's draft order to approve the merger.
"We made a number of significant commitments on day one designed to assure the government and the public that the public interest would be served and these benefits realized. And we have continued to refine and enhance our commitments throughout the year-long review by the FCC and the DoJ," he added.
Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast took the FCC officials' proposal of conditions tailored directly to the proposed combination as an indication of regulatory restraint, writing in a research note that "their emphasis on addressing transaction-specific harms, rather than broader industry concerns, is an encouraging sign for Comcast-NBCU. It suggests the conditions will be more disciplined and tied to harms created by the deal, rather than using the deal as a vehicle to push policy objectives."
But word of the FCC's expected approval came as an unwelcome development to the groups that have campaigned against the transaction, perhaps none more vocally than the media-reform organization Free Press.
"We are deeply disappointed that the FCC is apparently moving to approve this merger," Free Press Policy Counsel Corie Wright said in a statement, urging the commission not to "rubber stamp" the deal. "Comcast's takeover of NBC would have a harmful impact on competition and consumers, particularly in the emerging online video market."
The FCC is not expected to vote on the final order until next month, at the earliest.