The pending deal between NBC Universal and Comcast has found an unlikely opponent in former NBC-funnyman-turned-Senator, Al Franken (D-Minn.).

As we reported in December 2009, the joint venture agreement would leave Comcast owning 51 percent and G.E. owning 49 percent of NBC Universal. However, it seems predictions that the merger would face intense regulatory review have been realized. Congressional hearings on the deal began last Thursday with the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights discussing whether the deal will benefit consumers or hurt them.

The hearing was not without lighter notes. Pointing to NBC’s recent late night debacle, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) quipped, “to my friends at NBC: I have an opening for a constituent humorist specialist. If Conan would call my office, we could probably arrange to help you all out.” Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) opened his comments with the words: “we are here to talk about control of America’s most precious asset, and that of course is Tina Fey.”

However, the hearing also expressed serious concerns about the proposed deal, with none other than NBC alum Al Franken “coming out swinging” against the merger. Franken, who was a regular on NBC’s Saturday Night Live for years, dismissed the claims made by Comcast and NBC Universal that the partnering of the nation’s largest broadband and cable provider with the entertainment giant would not harm competitors or the public.

The concerns expressed at the hearing focused primarily on higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. There was speculation that Comcast could “inhibit” the access of consumers to TV content who are not Comcast customers. Further, that the new Comcast-NBC Universal team could block smaller competitors from content in the online space. It was also suggested that local NBC affiliates will be at a competitive disadvantage on the programming front after a merger and that the deal will lead to higher cable rates.

Conversely, others pointed out that vertical integration could lead to greater innovation and drive more competition in the already competitive market. And there were reassurances from Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, including a promise “to be reliable stewards of the national treasures of NBC and NBC News.” Franken’s curt response: “you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t trust these promises, and that is from experience in this business.”

Donna Baldry

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