Saturday, December 5, 2009

Comcastic voyage

This network is now in the hands of CCA, the Communications Corporation of America. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?

From “Network,” screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Say what you will, Conan O’Brien knows who’s buttering his multimillion-dollar “Tonight Show” bread.

It was Thursday, as you know, when the long tenuous marriage between General Electric and NBC Universal began to formally end, after GE and the Internet-cable powerhouse Comcast announced a joint venture worth a combined $37.25 billion, giving the cable company eventual control of NBC Universal.

The deal will eventually mean GE gets to revert back to its core industrial competencies and focus, and away from the more volatile dictates of television programming. NBC Universal finds a ready, able, willing partner in Comcast, which already owns several media properties, as well as the nation’s largest cable subscriber network (at least 24 million households, maybe even yours).

But in the meantime, and for the foreseeable future (until GE exercises the option to sell more of the company down the road), the NBC Universal entertainment behemoth — networks! theme parks! online! motion pictures! — is in the hands of a startling partner.

What a world. Conan O’Brien may be working for the cable guy. And Conan owned up to that on Thursday’s “Tonight Show,” with a monologue almost as good as a Comcast ad, and a tent-show-revival musical number extolling the virtue of NBCU’s probable new daddy, complete with dancing girls and Andy Richter on tambourine. CanIgeddawitness?

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We’re all witnesses to this one, the biggest media merger since the AOL-Time Warner nuptials back in 2001. You remember, when AOL bought Time Warner Inc. for a mind-numbing $147 billion in stock, the beginning of the worst deal in media history, a five-spiral crash that formally ends maybe next week, when AOL trades on the exchange as its own stock.

This new deal? It’s complicated: NBCU borrows $9.1 billion from various third-party lenders to pay out to GE, which uses that cash to buy Vivendi's 20 percent stake in NBCU for $5.8 billion. This paves the way for GE to sell control of NBCU to Comcast.

Comcast then pays GE $6.5 bil for NBCU’s media properties (including NBC). Comcast will take a controlling 51 percent stake in the joint venture, and GE will control 49 percent. GE has been wanting to get shed of NBCU for awhile; they’ll have about seven years to sell the rest, presumably to Comcast.

Comcast gets a shiny old, well-recognized media company with broad tentacles in cable (MSNBC, Telemundo, Bravo, USA Network, The Weather Channel), movies (Universal Studios) and online (, too, I believe). All of it, in theory, pairs up nicely with Comcast’s current media holdings, including E!, the Style Network and several sports-related properties.

“This deal is a perfect fit for Comcast,” said Brian Roberts, the company CEO, in a statement. "In particular, NBCU's fast-growing, highly profitable cable networks are a great complement to our industry-leading distribution business.”

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Others are more concerned, and for very good reason. Comcast’s move is an obvious nod to an endorsement of the idea of media synergy, the one-stop-shop philosophy that was at the heart of the ill-fated AOL-Time Warner deal. But more than being an apparent repetition of that debacle, the NBCU-Comcast tie-up is concerning for something else.

Our good friend Howard Beale hit on it in “Network” years ago in a fictional scenario that’s about to be reality. And a worrying reality at that. You see, this media conglomerate is now (or likely soon will be) in the hands of Comcast, the leading cable television provider in the United States, and a major player in the online space.

And when the leading cable provider in the United States controls a sizable chunk of online, cable and broadcast programming — when one company owns not just the pipes but the content flowing through those pipes … well, who knows what can happen?

“The people who have been in control are the ones who own the content,” James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research, told the Los Angeles Times. “Buying NBC Universal would give Comcast about one-fourth of the content that is being produced. They would then have the freedom and the power to start experimenting with how best to deliver that entertainment.”

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl is watching closely. “This acquisition will create waves throughout the media and entertainment marketplace and we don't know where the ripples will end,” Kohl said in a statement. “Antitrust regulators must ensure that all content providers are treated fairly on the Comcast platform.”

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Other folks aren’t waiting for the other shoe to drop when the deal closes sometime in the third quarter of 2010. The blogosphere has already decided.

Christopher W Hull, weighing in at CNN Money: “I am having AOL/Time Warner flashbacks! … I gotta say this looks good for all the other GE verticals (even the toasters, trains and twinklelights). … Now what is going to be funny is how they treat this on '30 Rock.' ”

Katie Withane at CNN Money: “Comcast is most certainly a monopoly. They're quickly decimating, or purchasing, their competitors. Adelphia, AT&T Broadband, Intermedia ... and every small cable operator they can get their hands on ... not to mention their attempt at Disney ... They are spreading out and absorbing all they can in the hopes of controlling all of the television they can, all of the media they can. As they grow larger, they become more capable of fighting Net Neutrality. In a few years, when Comcast controls what web sites you are able to visit by throttling your bandwidth, think back on this comment.”

Slapmewhenitsover at HuffPost: “Comcast is a crappy company. .... These people have a terrible record for customer service and seem to work on a policy of insulting their customers regularly. There is a wealth of supporting evidence (just search for Comcast complaints). 
These morons once sent me a $900 cable Internet bill for an account that had been closed for 3 years.”

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This deal, if approved after a regulatory review, effectively reshapes the television and entertainment landscape. Consumer advocates have already expressed misgivings, and a strong consumerist challenge can be expected.

But Conan O’Brien isn’t waiting. He’s seen the future. He proved it on Thursday night, in that musical number, which despite its hilarity had an undeniable whiff of fatalism. Like Winston at the end of “1984,” he’s come to “love” Big Brother already.

There may be a lesson there: As NBC Universal gets ready for its Comcastic voyage, make nice with your cable operator. When he comes to do the install, set out coffee and sandwiches for your cable guy. Admire him, admire his clothes. If this thing goes through, he may control more than you think.

Image credits: O'Brien: NBC via Hulu. NBC Universal logo: © 2009 NBC Universal. Roberts: AP Photo/Richard Drew. Howard Beale, "Network": © 1976 MGM. Conan's Comcast revival: From "The Tonight Show" video.

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