WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s antitrust division signaled last week it planned aggressive monitoring of the multichannel video marketplace for signs of anti-consumer practices related to the pricing and bundling of programming.
That division was already getting some props from anti-consolidation forces for progress on that front under its former antitrust chief, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney. But in his first appearance before the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, her successor, William Baer, pledged to make monitoring the communications marketplace a priority.
Baer’s pledge was prompted by urging from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). The former Saturday Night Live writer has been one of the fiercest critics of media mergers — particularly that of NBCUniversal, the parent of his former employer, and Comcast.
Franken began his questioning of the witnesses by saying that consumers were having a hard time stretching the family budget to pay for $200 cable bills and $200 mobile phone bills.
“These markets are very consolidated,” he said. “The Comcast/NBCU merger and agreements like the one between Verizon and Big Cable Companies are going to make it harder for consumers to find affordable options.” In referencing Verizon, Franken appeared to be talking about last year’s sale of advanced wireless spectrum from the SpectrumCo consortium of cable companies to Verizon Wireless.
Franken pointed to longstanding reports that the DOJ is investigating most-favored-nation clauses in the communications industry. “I want to urge you to continue that work and to keep a close eye on the terms of the Comcast/NBCU deal and the [SpectrumCo] agreement.”
The agreements mean nothing if they are not “properly and aggressively monitored and enforced,” Franken said. He got Baer to pledge to do just that. But the Justice official had not yet earned his antitrust merit badge.
Franken said he was worried about the broadband market, saying Comcast had previously imposed “discriminatory data caps on its customers,” while other providers had artificially raised the price of standalone broadband service — he did not name names — in order to “force customers to buy expensive bundles.”
He elicited a second pledge that Baer would keep an eye on that market to make sure that consumers would be able to cut the cord and watch online video rather than “pay for expensive pay TV service.”
“Senator, that is a key part of our mission and I can make that commitment to you,” he said.