Showdown in Chicago over the Comcast-NBCU deal

Posted: July 12, 2010

The activist group Free Press published a full-page "wanted" poster in a Chicago alternative weekly for no-show Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and has been blasting out e-mail alerts about Tuesday's public hearing on Comcast Corp.'s proposed deal to acquire control of NBC Universal Inc.

The event in Chicago, hosted by the FCC, promises lively political theater over media consolidation issues with five hours of testimony from supporters and opponents of the $30 billion Comcast-NBCU deal and two hours of "open microphone" public comment.

It will be the seventh public hearing held by Congress or the regulatory agency over the controversial deal that critics say could excessively concentrate media power in Comcast.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable TV operator with about 24 million subscribers, says it will have neither the power in the cable TV nor the programming businesses to raise rates, limit competition, or restrict access to entertainment and news.

Genachowski will not attend the hearing on the Northwestern University campus, and neither will three other FCC commissioners, including both Republicans, according to agency officials.

Commissioner Michael Copps, who has expressed reservations about the Comcast-NBCU merger, will lead the hearing, and other lower-ranking FCC officials will be there. The event will be streamed over the Internet at http://reboot.fcc.gov/live and begins at 1 p.m. (Chicago time). The testimony will become part of the public record.

Those scheduled to testify include officials with satellite-TV operator Dish Network Corp., cable overbuilder Wide Open West, the NBC independent affiliates group, the Tennis Channel, Nielsen Co., and the Technology Policy Institute.

Also testifying will be Josh Silver, the president and chief executive officer of Free Press, a nonprofit media-advocacy group that has tormented Comcast for several years and opposed media consolidation.

Free Press generated mass publicity over Comcast's interference of Internet traffic in 2007 that culminated in an enforcement action by the FCC.

Silver said Friday that the group had been sending out e-mails publicizing the Chicago hearing. The group published the "wanted" poster last week in the Reader, a Chicago weekly. It also is distributing fliers to supporters to post around Chicago, and it has a Facebook page for the event.

"He needs to be there," Silver said of Genachowski. "This will likely be the biggest media deal of his tenure. We're organizing like crazy. Those who could misconstrue the Comcast-NBCU deal as good for the public would be the same people who say we should deregulate the banks and the oil industry."

An FCC official said Friday that Genachowski would open the hearing via a pretaped video and would be briefed on the event.

The FCC chose Chicago as the site for the public hearing because of its central location and the fact that Comcast is a large cable TV operator in the metro area.

Comcast employs 7,500 workers in the Chicago area and serves 2.1 million subscribers. The region ranks among Comcast's top markets, as does northern California and Philadelphia-New Jersey.

Comcast also owns a 30 percent stake in a Chicago regional sports network with broadcast rights to the Blackhawks, Cubs, White Sox, and Bulls games.

If the $30 billion NBCU deals goes through, Comcast would own Chicago's major NBC over-the-air television affiliate, WMAQ-TV, too.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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