January 28, 2010, 5:10 PM — In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast says acquiring NBC Universal is in the public's best interest. Public interest groups, such as Free Press and Public Knowledge, disagree. At issue is whether a content gatekeeper should ever be allowed to team up with one company that creates that content. The debate goes beyond simple benefits and problems for consumers, but here are some of the basic consumer perks and pitfalls each side is trying to drive home to the FCC:
Day-and-date movies, maybe: Comcast told the FCC that it wants to speed up the availability of on-demand movies, bringing them closer to their DVD release dates. An acquisition would allow them to take a shortcut with NBC's content. Though day-and-date still might not fly with stakeholders, who worry about cannibalizing DVD sales, Comcast wants to work something out; competitors will have no choice but to follow.
Online content takes off: Comcast's poorly named Fancast Xfinity TV, a Web video service that requires a cable TV subscription, has been slow to start. Only 30 networks have signed on, and Comcast hopes to boost the process with NBC's content.
More content in more places: Comcast wants to prove that it won't make a mess of programming that the FCC deems necessary, such as local news, children's shows and Spanish-language content. The cable company promises thousands more hours of programming in all of these categories, to be available through cable, over the air, on-demand and online.
Promises not to gouge customers: Subscribers to Comcast can choose from 15,000 free on-demand programs per month, and that won't change, Comcast says. In fact, the company pledged to add an additional 5,000 choices within three years of the acquisition.
Cable companies get too powerful: Just as Comcast argues that other content providers will have to compete and follow its lead online and on-demand, Free Press argues that other cable companies will have to strike their own deals with networks. The result will be huge conglomerates that control not only what you watch, but how you watch it.
Cable rates go up...: Free Press worries that Comcast will charge its competitors more for NBC content, and that those television providers will pass the cost onto consumers. If other providers make their own acquisitions, the problem will only get worse.