Franken’s Unnecessary Scare

Published January 19, 2011

Last week, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) attempted another transformation. The former TV funnyman decided to forego punch lines and pratfalls in favor of scare tactics to push his opposition to the NBC Universal merger with Comcast.

His fright-fest in miniature, however, failed when both the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice approved the deal this Tuesday afternoon. The terms imposed on Comcast and NBCU were rather harsh – even by FCC standards.

In a two-minute video (, Franken asserted the merger would harm the pubic by limiting the information and entertainment content they consume.


Except for being untrue.

Shining a flashlight behind stuffed animals to create the illusion of horrific monsters is a nifty trick to terrify Cub Scouts camping out. But it’s just a trick.

Similarly, viewing the merger beyond Franken’s shadows cast on pup-tent walls exposes something considerably more benign.

The merger between content producer NBCU and content provider Comcast will result in what’s known as vertical integration. Combining the two businesses presents opportunities for growth for both entities, resulting in—you guessed it—more jobs. In a nation with unemployment figures stranded at 10 percent for more than two years, what’s so frightening about that?

Reflecting sentiments similar to those expressed by Franken, the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission dragged its feet on approving the merger for more than a year. During that period, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski opportunistically seized on the uncertainty caused by the delay to squeeze NBCU and Comcast for concessions.

Even though the FCC has no authority to make such demands as a condition for approval, Genachowski in December granted his tacit support to the merger after NBCU and Comcast allegedly agreed to net neutrality rules for seven years, preventing any prioritization of NBCU content on Comcast’s semi-affiliated Hulu Web site. It is reported the two companies will refrain from setting set-top box requirements for customers, which ostensibly could be used to limit viewer choices.

Franken still feared these agreements weren’t enough. He wanted to scuttle the deal completely.

He beseeched viewers of his video to sign a letter depicting the merger as “leaving Americans at the mercy of a few powerful media conglomerates.” Franken doubled down on the creepy by mentioning a broadcast industry “army of lobbyists” much as Hollywood pairs Mike Myers and Freddie.

“Already, we have seen that Comcast is not operating in good faith,” read Franken’s letter, referencing the peering dispute between Comcast and content deliverer Level 3 over the latter’s online distribution of Netflix.

That’s nonsense. Comcast simply conducted its business with Level 3 the same way it deals with all content deliverers. When Level 3 attempted to double its traffic on Comcast’s pipes for free to the financial detriment of Comcast and its customers, Comcast sought remuneration. That’s neither unprecedented nor sinister—in fact, Level 3 had previously demanded commercial renegotiations with another content deliverer that had increased its traffic on Level 3’s network.

Without a shred of evidence, Franken also asserted: “This deal would mean higher cable rates and less freedom of choice for American consumers, and it would give a single media conglomerate unprecedented control over the flow of information in America. Whenever the same company owns both the content and the pipes delivering that content, consumers lose.”

That’s another scary fiction. Today’s consumers have far greater choices than ever before, and Franken’s Ouija board predictions don’t stand up to scrutiny. As Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) noted last month: “The benefits to consumers from this transaction will bring new and innovative ways of consuming content and communications products. There will be new opportunities for independent programmers—including channels owned, operated, or targeted for minorities.”

Rendell’s not alone. He ventured into this attic with a posse of eight fellow governors, a bipartisan group of mayors from more than 59 major U.S. cities, and more than 400 federal, state, and local elected officials.

In the future, Franken should dial back the scare tactics. The only real risks in this scenario are the ones assumed by the merging companies.

Bruce Edward Walker
([email protected]) is managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.