FCC reportedly set to approve Comcast-NBC deal

By Dow Jones Newswires
Posted Jan. 17 at 3:35 p.m.

Federal regulators are on the verge of announcing approval of Comcast Corp.’s  deal to acquire control of NBC Universal from General Electric Co. , according to people close to the review.

Federal Communications Commission officials spent the weekend making last-minute revisions to an order approving the deal. FCC commissioners are expected to approve it on a 4-1 vote, with Democratic commissioner Michael Copps, an opponent of media consolidation, voting against.

The agency could announce its approval of the deal as early as Tuesday, according to people close to the negotiations. The Justice Department has also wrapped up its review of the deal and is ready to approve it with conditions shortly after the FCC gives its blessing, a person familiar with the matter said.

The Justice Department’s conditions are expected to be broadly in line with the FCC’s and include provisions to protect competition in online video, the person said.

Comcast has agreed to a variety of conditions, including providing more space on its systems for independent channels, guaranteeing the independence of NBC news operations, airing more children’s programming and keeping NBC network programming on free over-the-air channels.

If regulators bless the deal this week, the transaction still isn’t likely to close until the end of the month, a person familiar with the matter said, on account of the mechanics of the transaction.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski had proposed approving the deal a few days before Christmas with a handful of conditions, including requirements that the cable giant provides its programming to pay-TV rivals at reasonable rates.

Public interest groups, including Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, argued the deal is not in the public interest and asked the FCC to reject it or impose strong conditions to protect consumers.

As a nod to those concerns, most of the FCC’s conditions will stay in effect a longer-than-normal seven years, though a few expire earlier, including a provision requiring Comcast to offer stand-alone Internet service for $49.95 a month for three years. The FCC usually imposes conditions on mergers that last anywhere from three to five years.

In addition, the media giant would also be required to provide its programming to any online competitor that has reached a similar deal for content from one of NBC’s competitors, including Walt Disney Co.  and News Corp.

Time Warner Inc.  Chief Executive Jeffrey Bewkes and lobbyists for Disney and News Corp. argued that would hurt their own bargaining power during negotiations for online content. Their last-minute lobbying didn’t yield any changes, however. News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal and this newswire.

Comcast would not be allowed to favor its content over rivals’ online and couldn’t make NBC content available only to Comcast subscribers.

A condition requiring Comcast abide by the FCC’s new “net neutrality” rules, which would bar the company from blocking Web sites or deliberately slowing Internet traffic, was changed, however, at the request of the FCC’s two Republican members. The provision would have ensured Comcast abide by the rules, which have been a source of running controversy at the agency, regardless of the result of any future court challenge, which many expect.

As a compromise, Comcast agreed to voluntarily abide by “net neutrality” rules for seven years, according to people close to the negotiations.

A Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment.

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