WASHINGTON A lawmaker who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives' communications subcommittee is urging regulators to approve Comcast Corp's purchase of a controlling stake in NBC Universal, as long as consumers still have access to a wide array of video programing.
Representative Rick Boucher sent letters dated Monday to the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission, which are reviewing the proposed deal. He said NBC programs should not be available exclusively to Comcast subscribers.
"I have some concerns about the potential for harm to competition and consumers, particularly with respect to the continued availability of a wide array of video programing content to all Americans," the Democrat from Virginia wrote.
Boucher, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and other lawmakers, cannot tell the Justice Department and FCC what to do, but they do have an oversight role.
The combination of Comcast, the No 1 U.S. cable operator, and NBC Universal, which is majority owned by General Electric Co, would create the largest U.S. media company.
The two companies announced the proposed deal in December and it is widely expected to be approved with conditions.
Boucher expressed hope the deal would be approved by December 1, but said current NBC programing delivered over the air and on NBC's online site for free viewing should not be made exclusive to Comcast viewers or exclusive to any other online platform.
He also said Comcast should not be allowed to deprive the public of free access to sporting events involving professional football, baseball, hockey and basketball leagues and collegiate events, among others.
A Comcast spokeswoman declined comment on Boucher's concerns. Comcast shares closed 1 cent higher at $19.48 on Nasdaq.
Consumer groups are skeptical of the benefits of the merger because they believe it could lead to higher cable and broadband prices. Comcast is also the No. 1 U.S. residential Internet service provider.
U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, whose subcommittee oversees antitrust matters, said about two months ago that he would like Comcast to divest its 32 percent stake in online video site, Hulu.com, if regulators approve the deal.
NBC Universal owns a third of Hulu.com, a popular U.S. site for viewing television shows. Other Hulu owners are News Corp and Walt Disney Co, along with Providence Equity Partners.
Hulu is considered a jewel of the transaction. Having a stake in Hulu would help Comcast sidestep a big concern for cable companies, namely that users could start cutting subscriptions if they could see their favorite shows free online.
Hulu offers both free and paid subscription services.
(Reporting by John Poirier; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)