WASHINGTON Comcast Corp, the top U.S. cable provider, on Thursday told lawmakers no big scale job cuts will result from the proposed $30 billion joint venture with NBC Universal and remained committed to free over-the-air television programing.
"There's not going to be massive job cuts as part of this coming together," Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said at the first of two congressional hearings examining the proposed transaction.
Defending the deal before House of Representative lawmakers, Roberts said that 33,000 NBCU employees will be added as part of the transaction.
Roberts and NBC President Jeff Zucker reassured members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet that they plan to continue free broadcasts and enhance local news and other forms of local programing.
"Comcast is committed to free over-the-air television and the future of broadcasting," Zucker said. "Before this joint venture I was concerned about the future of broadcasting. It's been under tremendous amount of duress."
The proposed deal has been heavily criticized by public interest groups, warning that consumers could ultimately be hurt if Comcast, the biggest U.S. cable and broadband provider, also controls substantial amount of entertainment content.
NBCU also owns cable TV networks, a movie studio and theme parks. It also owns a stake in online video site Hulu.com, considered to be the digital jewel that could help Comcast sidestep a big concern among cable companies, namely that users may start dropping subscriptions if they can see their favorite shows online for free.
Access to free and paid content by the public, the distribution of online video content as well as maintaining localism and diversity, are issues being carefully watched in the proposed Comcast-NBC Universal deal.
"The future of free, over-the-air broadcast television is also tested by this transaction," said Henry Waxman, who chairs the full House committee, citing concerns that the most popular NBC programs could be transitioned to a pay-TV service.
LAWMAKERS APPEAR OPEN TO DEAL
Several Democrats and Republicans on the panel said there could be benefits from the transaction but added they wanted assurances that competition and innovation will not be harmed.
Throughout the hearing lawmakers appeared open to the deal but remained cautious about drawing any conclusions as to how the deal would affect consumers and still allow competing cable providers access to NBC content at reasonable rates.
Instead lawmakers largely urged the Department of Justice's antitrust division and the Federal Communications Commission to rigorously comb through documents and assess the impact, while also urging them to move expeditiously.
"Will competition be sustainable with the largest video and broadband provider controlling huge quantities of content?" asked Waxman.
Antitrust experts have said it could take a year for regulators to work out conditions for the deal to be approved.
Congress has no direct role in the process but oversees the reviewing agencies and funds their operations.
Cliff Stearns, the subcommittee's top Republican, said: "The idea that the Comcast-NBCU combination will harm competition is unfounded."
The deal "will lead to greater innovation and drive more competition in this already competitive market," he added.
WOW!, which competes with Comcast in several cities including Chicago and Detroit and also pays for Comcast and NBC programs, said the proposed combination would greatly enhance Comcast's market power and harm local providers and ultimately the customers.
"Consumer hopes for greater choice will be dashed," WOW! CEO Colleen Abdoulah said.
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a consumer group, said that cable prices are likely to rise. "Comcast will be in a stronger position to demand bigger bundles at higher prices from your local cable operator who is not Comcast," Mark Cooper, CFA director of research, told lawmakers.
Comcast would get 51 percent of a new joint venture that includes NBC Universal, valued at $30 billion, and Comcast's own cable networks, valued at $7.25 billion. GE would own the remaining 49 percent. As payment for its stake, Comcast will contribute $6.5 billion in cash and its cable networks.
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn, Bernard Orr)