Comcast's acquisition of 51% of NBC Universal from GE has been derided by some observers as the second coming of the AOL-Time Warner deal--two big media companies merging with few real synergies. On the contrary, I think that it's a very good deal for both companies--but it's not without risks.
AOL was "circling the drain" before the merger with Time Warner--subscriptions rates were flattening out, churn was increasing, as were subscriber acquisition costs. The company was hard-pressed to find growth, so it instead engineered one of the dumbest mergers in U.S. history, getting one of the biggest media companies in the world to essentially give itself to AOL. (Let's be clear...the merger was dumb for Time Warner but brilliant for AOL.)
By contrast, NBC Universal is in far better shape than AOL was. NBC's broadcast network is a mess, and the Universal movie studio is questionable (as it's been ever since MCA was acquired by Panasonic years ago), but its cable networks are generally strong, well-run and profitable. It's the cable networks that formed the primary reason for Comcast's interest.
The FCC is almost certainly going to require Comcast to either divest NBC's owned-and-operated television stations in markets where Comcast has cable systems (in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., among other cities) or its cable systems in those same markets. I suspect that it's the television stations rather than the cable systems that will be sold off.
Antitrust arguments against the merger are going to be a lot harder to make; for years, Time Warner owned Time Warner Cable (the second-largest cable operator), a movie studio and a collection of cable networks at least as powerful as those of the Comcast/NBC Universal combination without running afoul of antitrust regulators. Comcast has already pledged to make NBC Universal's cable networks available to competitors. The deal is likely to get done without major concessions beyond those required by the FCC.
The NBC television network can be fixed; it fell from first to fourth place in little more than a year, and one or two years of strong program development could turn things around. (To do so, however, Comcast will have to get Jeff Zucker and his cronies away from the network and install a new programming team.) Universal is a bigger problem, in that Comcast will be its sixth owner in less than 20 years, and no one in that time has figured out how to return the studio to success. The solution may be to sell off Universal in parts, keeping its library and selling off the ongoing studio operations.
NBC Universal's digital assets have been called a key reason for the deal, but I think that they're clearly the tail in this deal, not the dog. The most important digital asset is Hulu, but NBC Universal is a minority owner. Comcast will get a seat at the table, and Hulu will get to play in the TV Everywhere initiative, but it's not going to negate News Corporation's and Disney's interests.
I've learned from my own sources is that Comcast is working on its own low-cost, Roku-style set-top box to make its Xfinity service available on television sets without having to replace millions of existing set-top boxes. This could become the "official" mechanism through which Hulu will get to television sets.
In short, this deal makes sense for both Comcast and GE: Comcast gets control of a treasure trove of content, decreases its costs for distributing some of the most popular cable channels (they become internal transfer costs instead of outright expenses) and gets partial ownership of the Internet video distributor that poses the biggest risk to cable operators. GE gets out of the entertainment business without taking a financial bath, and can focus on industrial, medical and financial areas. The merger will almost certainly go through.