Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Does Comcast-NBC Universal matter?

Now that both the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department have approved Comcast's acquisition of 51% of NBC Universal, observers of the deal have broken into two camps:
  1. The deal will benefit consumers (this camp is very small)
  2. The deal will concentrate power and harm consumers (most observers fall into this camp)
The FCC and Justice Department have imposed some conditions on Comcast--for example, it can keep its ownership share of Hulu but can't exercise any management control, it has to make NBC Universal's cable channels and movie content available on an equal basis to all "bona fide" competitors (the courts may have to define what a "bona fide" competitor is), and it has to unbundle its high-speed Internet service so that consumers can purchase it without buying Comcast's cable or telephone service. These conditions go nowhere as far as some of the opponents of the deal wanted, but let's take them as a given.

Now that the deal is done, I find myself in a third camp--the "It doesn't matter" camp. At the end of the day, I think that this deal is going to harm Comcast more than anyone else. Here's why:
  • Comcast is getting control of the NBC television network after years of mismanagement that have driven it into fourth place out of four major commercial broadcast networks in the U.S. The broadcast networks' share of the television audience has been shrinking for years, so even if Comcast manages to dramatically improve NBC's programming, it's still an asset with a declining value over time.
  • If Comcast tries to move NBC's premier sports programming (primarily the Olympics and NFL football) to cable, NBC's affiliates will go to the U.S. Congress and FCC to force Comcast to prevent the move.
  • Universal Pictures has been floundering without direction for years. Comcast will be the studio's sixth owner in 20 years (MCA, Panasonic, Seagram's, Vivendi and General Electric). The studio has been in the "second tier" of the Big 6 U.S. movie studios since its game of ownership "hot potato" started in 1990. It's unlikely that Comcast is going to bring anything to Universal that will change the situation.
  • Comcast is acquiring a strong set of cable channels, but it can't deny them to its IPTV or satellite competitors.
  • Comcast can't shut down Hulu or turn it into a "TV Everywhere" service.
  • Comcast faces the same problem that the last four owners of Universal didn't deal with: What should it do with its theme parks? Panasonic, Seagram's, Vivendi and GE didn't want to be in the theme park business, but they didn't do anything about it. Now, Comcast has to decide whether to invest in the parks or sell them off.
In short, with the exception of the cable networks, which Comcast will effectively no longer have to pay to carry, the company has acquired control of a bunch of problems with questionable solutions. NBC Universal's problems are going to further divert the focus of Comcast's management, which is dealing with a loss of subscribers to IPTV and satellite service providers, and the rise of over-the-top Internet video as a viable competitor to its cable services. (To date, Comcast's primary reaction has been closing its eyes and hoping that the problems go away, but that response won't work for much longer.)

I'd be willing to lay odds that within five years, Comcast will either divest itself of everything but NBC Universal's cable channels, or failing that, will divest the entire company to another acquirer who's foolhardy enough to think that it can turn things around.

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