I testified this morning in the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet at a hearing titled, "An Examination of the Proposed Combination of Comcast and NBC Universal." Among those testifying were Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts, and NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker. Down below I have attached my brief remarks (we only had 5 minutes), but see the Scribd doc at the very bottom to also see the embedded charts. I also wrote a paper about the proposed deal back in December entitled, "A Brief History of Media Merger Hysteria: From AOL-Time Warner to Comcast-NBC" as well as this editorial for Forbes.
Although we are still early in this process, there has already been a great deal of hand-wringing and even some dire predictions about the pending merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. I hope to put this proposed marriage in some historical context and explain why the deal certainly won't have the detrimental impact some critics fear, and also explain why it might even be one potential model for how to sustain traditional media going forward.
Other firms, however, have found ways to make deals work and deliver important new services that previously were unimaginable or simply too expensive to offer alone.[iii] Regardless, the point here is that we'll never know what works unless we permit marketplace experimentation with new and innovative business models.
More importantly, it's hard to believe the new firm would restrict its content to just Comcast-owned distribution networks since they would be losing the eyeballs, advertisers, and revenues that would accompany the carriage of their content on other video platforms. Likewise, it would make little sense for the firm to block new or competing channels on their own platform since they would incur the wrath of the programmers and the viewing public alike. And those channels will likely quickly find a home elsewhere, which could incentivize subscribers to switch video service providers. (See Exhibits 2-6)
Indeed, the great thing about the modern media marketplace is that there is always another place for consumers to turn to find what they want. Comcast faces increasingly robust competition in the video programming marketplace from satellite and telco providers, as well as from Internet-based video providers.[v] (See Exhibit 7) And NBC Universal's stable of programming, while impressive, is a mere trickle in an ocean of content that consumers can choose from.[vi]
Meanwhile, many consumers are increasingly "cutting the cable cord" altogether and instead getting the video they want from a bewildering array of online video services.[vii] Netflix, Hulu, Joost, Roku, Apple, the Sony PlayStation Store, the Microsoft Xbox store, and others offer traditional TV fare while sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Justin.TV offer a mix of professional and amateur content.
In sum, there has never been so much competition for our eyes and ears, and audiences and advertising dollars have become increasingly fragmented as a result.[viii] (See Exhibits 8-10)
Consider last week's news that NBC Universal saw quarterly profits plunge by a whopping 30% in the fourth quarter of 2009.[ix] This is indicative of the general downturn the entire media sector has been experiencing as of late. Why not then let Comcast help NBCU try to get back on track rather than force them to make it on their own in a radically uncertain future? And it goes without saying that Comcast might be better positioned to protect NBC Universal's copyrighted content from digital piracy, at least over its own pipes.
Those who are concerned about the future of broadcasting and local news should remember that news--and local broadcast news in particular--isn't cheap. Unless we want to embark on a massive government subsidization scheme to bailout traditional media providers, Congress and regulatory officials must be willing to grant private media operators the flexibility to restructure their business affairs so they can continue to provide important public needs while also turning a profit.[x] That can't happen unless we allow media markets to evolve and let operators experiment with new business models and ownership structures.[xi] Although there are no guarantees, creator/distributor alliances like Comcast-NBCU may be one model that helps firms create, extend, and then also monetize their media content. But, again, regulatory flexibility is crucial so we can figure out what works and what doesn't.
Thank you again for inviting me here to testify.
[ii] Adam Thierer, A Media Morality Play, Forbes, Dec. 15, 2009, www.forbes.com/2009/12/14/media-merger-antitrust-opinions-contributors-adam-thierer.html
[iii] A good example: Disney's seamless and successful integration of ABC Television Group (ABC + Disney cable properties), Walt Disney Studios, the Walt Disney Internet Group, its many ESPN properties, and its parks and resorts.
[iv] 2006 is the last for which the FCC has made data available, but as of that time the overall number of national programming networks available in America stood at 565 channels. That is up from just 70 channels in 1990, an astonishing increase in program choices. The FCC noted that, "Of the 565 networks, 84 (14.9 percent) were vertically integrated, or affiliated, with at least one cable operator." Federal Communications Commission, FCC Adopts 13th Annual Report to Congress on Video Competition and Notice of Inquiry for the 14thAnnual Report, Nov. 27, 2007, at 4, http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-278454A1.pdf What that summary fails to mention, however, is that vertical integration has fallen steadily since the FCC's first Annual Video Competition Report was issued, when over 50 percent of all channels were affiliated with a cable operator. Indeed, the video marketplace exhibits less vertical integration than ever before. As far as vertically integrated industries go, no impartial observer would conclude that this industry is being controlled by "gatekeeper," pay TV platforms, as some critics suggest. Most new pay TV channels today are independently owned and offer an unprecedented diversity of programming options. This trend is a strong sign of how healthy and vibrantly competitive this marketplace is today. Finally, these numbers do not take into account the split between Time Warner Entertainment and Time Warner Cable, which represented a significant portion of the 15% of vertically owned channels before 2006. That is the percentage of cable channels owned by video distributors is in the single digits today.
[v] Adam Thierer, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, Video Competition in a Digital Age, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Oct. 22, 2009, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/testimony/2009/10-22-09-thierer-testimony-video-competition-digital-age.pdf
[vii] See generally The Progress & Freedom Foundation, "Cutting the Video Cord," PFF Blog Ongoing Series, http://blog.pff.org/archives/ongoing_series/cutting_the_video_cord/
[ix] David B. Wilkerson, NBC Quarterly Profit Plunges 30%, MarketWatch, Jan. 22, 2010.
[x] W. Kenneth Ferree, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, Another Naïve Proposal for Government Entanglement with the Fourth Estate, PFF Blog, Feb. 1, 2010, http://blog.pff.org/archives/2010/02/another_naive_proposal_for_government_entanglement.html; Adam Thierer, Socializing Media in Order to Save It, City Journal, March 27, 2009, www.city-journal.org/2009/eon0327at.html; Adam Thierer, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, Public Option for Press Should Get the Red Pen, Progress Snapshot 6.4, Jan. 25, 2010, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/ps/2010/ps6.4-OP-ED-for-Daily-Caller-A-Public-Option-for-the-Press.html
[xi] W. Kenneth Ferree, The Progress & Freedom Foundation, Media Ownership Proceedings, Testimony before the Federal Communications Commission, Nov. 3, 2009, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/testimony/2009/11-03-09-ferree-media-ownership-testimony.pdf; Adam Thierer, Media Myths: Making Sense of the Debate over Media Ownership (The Progress & Freedom Foundation, 2005), www.pff.org/issues-pubs/books/050610mediamyths.pdf