More trouble looms for Comcast merger

More trouble looms for Comcast merger

Comcast’s $45 billion proposed merger with Time Warner Cable has hit another significant bump.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that staffers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — which along with the Justice Department is reviewing the merger — have recommended taking the matter to a hearing.

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The procedural hurdle would effectively bring the matter before an administrative law judge, which could be a bad sign for the merger’s prospects. 

The matter would not go immediately to a hearing. Sources speaking to the Journal maintained that cable executives might be able to prevent it from heading to a judge.

Still, the staff opinion is a strong signal of opposition to the merger at the FCC. Combined with other signs from regulators, it does not paint a rosy picture for the companies' prospects.

The proposed combination of the nation’s two largest cable firms has been under assault by critics since it was announced more than a year ago. Skepticism about regulatory approval has increased markedly in recent months amid signals of agency opposition. 

Critics of the deal say that it would give Comcast an ability to choke competition, both over the Internet and on television. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would control about half of the nation’s broadband Internet access and slightly less than 30 percent of the nation’s TV subscriptions. Because Comcast also owns NBC Universal, opponents worry about its ability to prioritize its own content over its rivals'.

Company officials have fought back, noting that Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t currently compete in any of the same markets, meaning nobody would lose a choice of cable provider as result of the merger. Supporters also tout Comcast programs for low-income families and other benefits.

Still, it’s not clear those arguments are working.

Last week, Justice Department attorneys were reportedly leaning toward recommending the government file an antitrust lawsuit to block the merger. 

An FCC representative declined to comment on the Journal story or staff actions.

On Wednesday, company officials were called in for meetings at both the Justice Department and the FCC.

Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman, declined to comment about those sessions or the news story.

Updated at 10:19 a.m.