Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has written the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice to express his concern over Comcast's reading of the neighborhooding condition in its NBCU merger agreement and urged the agency to keep close watch on all the conditions agreed upon by the companies in securing their merger.
"It is now six months since this deal was approved, and a complaint has already been filed by Bloomberg, L.P. regarding Comcast's refusal to place Bloomberg's financial news channel in the same "neighborhood" as other cable news networks, including Comcast's CNBC and MSNBC," Franken wrote in the letter, dated Aug. 4. "I fear that Comcast's alleged attempt to maneuver around the neighborhooding condition in the merger order is only the beginning of a series of lengthy and expensive battles over conditions, and I urge the Commission to act promptly if Comcast is in violation of this or any other conditions in its merger order."
Franken said that if the FCC does find a violation, the length of time the condition is enforced should be extended by however long it took Comcast to come into compliance.
The senator also wants the FCC to "investigate and monitor" Comcast's compliance with all the terms of the deal, saying that conditions on mergers in general going forward won't mean anything if "there is minimal enforcement of the corporation's efforts to skirt the requirements of the deal."
He conceded that the neighborhooding language in the order is "somewhat ambiguous," but said it was unfortunate that Comcast had challenged the condition, rather than negotiate. Bloomberg contacted Comcast about moving its channels, then filed the complaint at the FCC after Comcast responded that the move was not required by the order.
Franken added that the FCC's Enforcement Bureau had recently found that Comcast has "engaged in 'deliberate anticompetitive conduct' against the Tennis Channel and in favor of its channels, Golf Channel and Versus," which he said was all the more reason for the FCC to look closely at the Bloomberg complaint.
Comcast has challenged the Enforcement Bureau decision as wrong and called its recommendation of mandated Tennis channel carriage on a wider tier improper, unsubstantiated and illegal.
Bloomberg filed a complaint against Comcast at the FCC in June, saying it was not living up to its end of the bargain to group news channels going forward and asked the FCC to force Comcast to move Bloomberg into news groupings on systems in the top 35 DMA's.
Comcast has countered that Bloomberg's reading would require a wholesale channel remake that the condition does not require.
"Like Bloomberg, a $30 billion media company, Sen. Franken misinterprets the 'neighborhooding' condition in the FCC's Comcast NBCUniversal transaction Order," Comcast said in a statement. "Comcast does not 'neighborhood' news channels in the manner intended by the FCC, as illustrated by the 10-15 channel news neighborhoods that other providers have throughout their systems. Further, Comcast has not repositioned any channels to favor CNBC or any other affiliated news channel."
If Comcast is forced to do what Bloomberg wants the FCC to mandate, which goes well beyond the requirements of the FCC oOrder, networks with longstanding channel placements will be disrupted and millions of customers will be subject to the confusion resulting from massive channel realignments across the country."