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NBC and Comcast: Well....?
So, deal or no deal?Or maybe the more relevant question: talks or no talks? Seems to me there's both smoke and fire here, though it's intriguing to note that the Big Two - the NYT and Wall Street Journal - have pointedly played down the story of a Comcast bid to buy NBC. It all broke last night on a website called the Wrap, a new-ish west coast-based operation that is run by former Timesman Sharon Waxman, who's certainly well-regarded, well-sourced, and in a vicious dog fight with grand dame of west coast entertainment biz reporting, Nikki Finke. At first, Waxman said the deal was done, then had to back-pedal when both NBC and Comcast said no deal was done. Here's how Finke then countered: "Comcast tonight is denying an Internet blog's bullshit that a 'deal was done' (and the blog has already backtracked from that very inaccurate claim). The truth, deep Comcast sources are telling reporters there's ''nothing imminent' and 'no price yet' while looking in the general direction of NBCU." Waxman made her splash, but that's the danger with splashes - sometimes you get splattered. But even so, the amusing thing here is that you almost wondered if someone at NBC leaked this to Waxman just to punish Finke, who has brutalized NBC for years. That’s all inside baseball. Who cares. But if these giants are talking, as now appears certain, what does it all mean? The bullets! 1.) GE and NBCU aren't only interested in finding a buyer for the 20 percent stake owned by Vivendi, but perhaps a buyer for everything... 2.) Even by entering into talks, GE has signaled that it's about to go in a different direction, and away from the biz that it's been on-and-off allied with since the '20s (though of course bought NBC via its purchase of RCA in the mid-80s.)
3.) That GE, perforce, has lost confidence in current management's ability to ever turn around this badly leaking ship, and by "ship" I mean the most visible portion of this empire, the network - although everything else seems to be in good shape. 4.) That the broadcasting business is faced with so many uncertainties, why would GE need to have just one additional burden on its already-over-burdened balance sheet? 5.) That a sale, or even talk of a sale, might significantly boost the stock price, because I suspect investors might like to this burden lifted as well as a nice infusion of cash.
6.) That a sale to Comcast would finally put the Philly company in the spot it's wanted to be for year - as a major content provider to rival rivals Time Warner, Disney and News Corp. - latter controls DirecTV. Such a deal would or may put the onus on CBS to find a partner, too, since in the eyes of the street, a standalone broadcaster would seem to be out-maneuvered and outflanked. Comcast is run by Steve Burke, a particularly bright fellow who was once a rising star at Disney before he had some sort of falling out with Bob Iger; he's always been preaching the benefits of content, much as John Malone did so many years ago when that seer was a huge Denver-based cable operator. 7.) That a sale would also test the Obama Justice Department rather significantly. I believe - though will check further - that a major cable operator can own TV stations, BUT that the FCC has in place a so-called horizontal cap that limits how many viewers the operator can reach in an individual market. I don’t know how that’d work across the country, but if this deal were to ever happen, Comcast would instantly be a major player in the city that never sleeps, not to mention tri-state area, where Time Warner and Cablevision have long divided most of the spoils.
UPDATE: Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the influential Media Access Project tells me via email: "FCC used to have a local TV/cable cross-ownership ban, but it was thrown out by the courts. So, too, the DC Circuit recently threw out the cap on cable horizontal ownership."None of that, however, changes the fact that the FCC must approve the transaction. It isn't enough that it doesn't violate a rule; the applicants must establish that grant of the transaction is not contrary to the public interest. (Example: the FCC did not approve the proposed merger of DirecTV and Dish a few years ago. The deal didn't transgress
any specific FCC rule).