FCC gives green light to Comcast's merger with NBC Universal

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday gave the green light to Comcast's proposed acquisition of a majority stake in NBC Universal by a vote of 4-1.

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, the lone dissenting vote, said in a statement that the merger "confers too much power in one company’s hands."

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"The Comcast-NBCU joint venture opens the door to the cable-ization of the open Internet," Copps said. "The potential for walled gardens, tollbooths, content prioritization, access fees to reach end-users and a stake in the heart of independent content production is now very real."

The FCC's approval paves the way for the nation's largest broadband Internet access provider to acquire a controlling interest in one of the four national broadcast networks, along with cable networks, local NBC affiliates, film studios and theme parks.

Comcast will own 51 percent of the new entity, while GE will retain ownership of the rest. The Department of Justice also approved the transaction on Tuesday after the FCC's vote.

The transaction has been one of the most scrutinized in recent memory, with thousands of comments and dozens of stakeholders emerging to weigh in on the potential impact of the merger on the media landscape.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), one of the most outspoken critics of the merger, blasted the FCC's decision in a statement Tuesday.

“The FCC’s action today is a tremendous disappointment. The commission is supposed to protect the public interest, not corporate interests. But what we see today is an effort by the FCC to appease the very companies it’s charged with regulating," Franken said.

"With approval of this merger, the FCC has given a single media conglomerate unprecedented control over the flow of information in America. This will ultimately mean higher cable and Internet bills, fewer independent voices in the media and less freedom of choice for all American consumers."

Franken also vowed to fight "any further media consolidation of this kind."

The final agreement comes with several conditions aimed at protecting competition in the online video market and preserving diversity and access for independent and minority content providers. Those conditions will generally remain in effect for seven years.

The agreement requires the Comcast-NBCU venture to ensure its content is available on reasonable terms to competing cable and satellite providers as well as rival online video services in an attempt to limit Comcast's influence over the growing online video market.

Comcast also entered into voluntary agreements to maintain the current level of local programming and to increase the amount of independent and children's programming on the air. Comcast will also make affordable broadband access available to 2.5 million low-income households.

A trade group representing small and medium-sized cable operators praised the FCC for imposing tough conditions on the merger.

"The simple truth is that the Comcast-NBCU transaction, as submitted to the FCC, would have reduced competition and raised consumer prices dramatically," said American Cable Association President Matthew Polka. “And none of this would have been possible without an FCC chairman who also cared about these issues.”

Competing media firms such as Bloomberg and advocacy groups including Free Press and the Consumers Union have been adamant the transaction will lead to higher prices and less choice for consumers. The groups also fear the new entity's ability to influence the online video market.

"This deal will give Comcast unprecedented control over both media content and the physical network that delivers it. The FCC has opened Pandora’s Box, and we can soon expect a whole new swarm of mega-mergers that will have dire consequences for media and the Internet," said Free Press President Josh Silver.

“Such power concentrated in the hands of a single company is deeply troubling."

Comcast has dismissed those concerns, pointing to the scores of lawmakers and community organizations that have publicly backed the merger.

The cable giant also entered into voluntary agreements with civil-rights organizations to set aside channels and programming dollars for minority-owned and -produced content. Those agreements were crucial to securing Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn's support, according to a statement released Tuesday.

"After considering these additional voluntary commitments from the applicants, I determined that their resolve to improve diversity of viewpoint and programming is credible and they deserve discretion in taking steps they feel are necessary to make additional tangible improvements in those areas," Clyburn said.

The Washington Post was the first to report the FCC's approval.

This post was last updated at 3:11 p.m.