WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal regulators are pledging rigorous reviews of Comcast Corp.'s proposed purchase of NBC Universal to ensure that it would not stifle competition or harm consumers.
Christine Varney, the Justice Department's antitrust chief, and Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, offered no indication at a hearing Thursday of what the outcome of those reviews could be.
But many lawmakers and industry analysts expect regulators to approve the deal with conditions to prevent a combined company from abusing its market power.
At Thursday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing, lawmakers expressed concern about the dangers of allowing the nation's biggest cable TV and broadband company to take control of NBC's vast media empire.
"When consolidation occurs in these markets, we need to pay attention," said Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "When companies swell to include both content and distribution, we need to pay attention. Because it is vitally important that when we have mergers in these markets, consumers cannot be left with lesser programming and higher rates."
Comcast is seeking government approval to acquire a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co. Comcast already owns some cable TV channels, including E! Entertainment and the Golf Channel. NBC Universal owns the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks, along with popular cable channels such as CNBC, Bravo and Oxygen and the Universal Pictures movie studio.
The Justice Department will focus its review on the antitrust implications of the deal, while the FCC will look at whether the transaction is in the public interest. The FCC will soon begin accepting public comments to help guide its analysis. Both reviews are expected to last all year or longer.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called on Varney and Genachowski to ensure that Comcast won't be able to extract higher prices from rival cable TV, satellite, phone and Internet companies for access to its popular video programming - in turn driving up prices for consumers.
That issue is drawing attention in Washington this week after a dispute over fees that Cablevision Systems Corp. pays to carry the ABC station in New York caused Cablevision subscribers to miss the first 15 minutes of the Oscars on Sunday.
A number of cable TV and satellite companies have seized on the incident to ask the FCC to prohibit broadcasters from pulling signals during negotiations and to mandate binding arbitration. Genachowski told senators on Thursday that the FCC would review whether existing federal regulations still make sense.
Kerry also urged regulators to ensure that Comcast won't lock up video programming on the Internet by making it available only to cable TV subscribers.
Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told the committee that the combination would benefit consumers and drive innovation by accelerating "the delivery of the 'anytime, anywhere,' multi-platform video experience Americans want."
He added that the transaction would not reduce competition because "there is no significant overlap between the assets of the two companies."