Sen. Franken’s Unnecessary Scare

Published January 25, 2011

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) is attempting another transformation. This time, the former SNL funnyman has foregone punch lines and pratfalls in favor of scare tactics to push his opposition to the NBC In a two-minute video, Franken asserts such a merger would harm the pubic by limiting the information and entertainment content they consume.


Except, really, it’s not.

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 also dishonest.

Viewing the proposed merger beyond Franken’s shadows cast on pup-tent walls presents something considerably more benign.

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

The Federal Communications Commission has dragged its feet on approving the merger for more than a year. During that period, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski opportunistically seized upon the uncertainty of the delay to squeeze NBCU and Comcast for concessions.

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

Yet a vote on the merger still is notably absent from the January FCC meeting agenda.

But Franken still fears these agreements aren’t enough. He wants to scuttle the deal completely.

He beseeches viewers to sign a letter wherein the merger is depicted as “leaving Americans at the mercy of a few powerful media conglomerates.” To add to the fright factor, Franken conveniently manages to slip in the broadcast industry’s “army of lobbyists” in much the same way Hollywood pairs Mike Myers and Freddie to ramp up the scary quotient.

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

Rather than acting as the boogeyman in Franken’s scenario, however, 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 – an action not unprecedented as 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 asserts: “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.”

How’s that? The choices facing today’s consumers are greater than ever before – and Franken’s ex ante Ouija Board antics 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.

Franken should dial back the scary talk as the only risks are the ones assumed by the two companies proposing to merge.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s Infotech & Telecom News.