The bigger-than-anticipated lobbying battle over the proposed mega-merger of Comcast and NBC shows no signs of quieting down, as the companies acknowledged this week that the deal will not win government approval this year.
The merger, which must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, has drawn the opposition of rival communications companies as well as public interest groups worried that the deal could negatively affect video programming on the Internet. And with net neutrality rules behind it, the FCC is expected to turn its attention to the deal.
At the same time, leaders of three prominent African-American groups recently threw their support behind the merger after Comcast agreed to help fund minority communications ventures and increase diversity in its workforce.
The consideration of the merger by the FCC follows a contentious fight over net neutrality rules, which the five-member panel approved along partisan lines Tuesday.
Although there had been speculation that the sale would be finalized by the end of this year, a Comcast official said Wednesday that was no longer possible.
“We believe the FCC and the DOJ continue to make substantial progress toward approval of our transaction,” Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said in a statement issued Wednesday. "We believe the regulatory review puts us on track for a closing in January 2011.”
On Thursday, David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, issued a statement noting that the FCC was circulating a draft order covering the approval of the sale that he expected the commission will vote on in January.
“We will continue to work with the commissioners so that the FCC order will not undermine our business combination and will ensure that consumers will benefit and that competitors are treated fairly,” he said in the statement.
A Comcast official said that the cable company anticipated the opposition to the sale. “The usual suspects had the usual objections,” the official said.
Even with the delay, Andrew Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, said the merger moves “to the top of the menu” at the FCC.
His group has lobbied federal regulators to place conditions on Comcast to ensure the company will not be able to limit Internet video options such as Hulu, which carries NBC programming on its website.
Even though the FCC approved rules that require Internet providers not to discriminate against content, Schwartzman said that regulators should still separately force Comcast to abide by net neutrality rules.
He added that such a stipulation would provide a backup in case the FCC net neutrality regulations do not stand up to legal challenges. Comcast backed the net neutrality compromise crafted by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who devised the new rules after the cable giant successfully challenged in federal court commission orders that providers keep their networks open to content.
Comcast has shifted its focus this year to winning federal approval of its acquisition of the network. It has mounted an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign both on Capitol Hill and in the federal agencies to defuse criticism of the deal.