Power Grab: Comcast Has a New Name, but Merger With NBC Universal Still a Bad Idea


What do you do if you're a really big company that consumers despise, but you want government regulators to okay - and the public to accept -- a merger with another really big company?

Change your name, of course: introducing Xfinity (aka Comcast).

Comcast is a massive cable TV and Internet provider, which wants to merge with NBC Universal, one of the world's largest news and entertainment content providers.

However, a history of bad corporate citizenship, as indicated by this latest deceptive maneuver has caught up with Comcast. This Thursday, the U.S. Senate convened a legislative hearing to question Comcast and NBCU's CEOs on the social impact of the proposed merger.

You may have seen the recent commercials for XFinity: In February, Comcast began rebranding itself with this new name, promising customers "more of everything you want."

That would be a pleasant change, but consumers are rightly skeptical. After all, in a 2009 Forrester Research survey of customer satisfaction, Comcast ranked number 105 out of 113 companies. That's just one of many reasons that regulators should block the merger with NBC Universal - or, at the very least, attach tough conditions before letting it go forward.

The merger would give this massive new media conglomerate an unacceptable chokehold on innovation and the flow of information. It would have the potential to stifle the democratic, competitive nature of the budding internet content market and its small, independent businesses.

That's not idle speculation. After all, this is a company with quite an interest in politics: Comcast is reported to have spent over $5.5 million in campaign contributions since 2006, on top of over $50 million spent on lobbying in the last three years. Comcast has also been repeatedly and credibly accused of censorship of Internet and cable TV content and advertising, including both political messages and file-sharing applications. Do we really want to hand Comcast even more power over what we are allowed to view and download?

We have seen mega-deals like this one before fail and leave the merging companies in tatters. Recent history brings to mind the AOL-Time Warner break-up and Comcast's own botched attempt to acquire Disney. If Comcast-NBCU joins this list as the latest reckless corporate pipe dream to crash, do not expect Comcast and NBC CEOs Brian Roberts and Jeff Zucker to return their exorbitant salaries with their public apologies. No, the real pain will be felt by American employees and consumers.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) has rightly asked some tough questions of the CEOs of both Comcast and NBC Universal. Would they, for example, commit to holding cable rate increases to no more than the rate of inflation? Would they end the onerous practice of "bundling," that forces less-popular channels on unwilling buyers rather than letting them simply pay for the channels they want?

With Comcast remaining silent on many of these questions, its history of broken promises, deceitful customer relations, and underwhelming service speaks volumes. To be fair, Comcast's Roberts did give an assurance that there would be "no massive layoffs." That's nice, but awfully vague and glaringly insensitive at a time when the nation remains crippled by unemployment and Washington is scrambling to create jobs.

But despite concerns being voiced by many, a growing consensus seems to think this merger is inevitable -- the same sort of defeatist attitude that led to some banks becoming "too big to fail" and a mishandled bailout. Those "too big to fail" banks ultimately became too big to control.

Make no mistake: If this merger is approved, the floodgates will open and more will likely follow. CBS/Cox, perhaps? Or Cox/Disney?

Government regulators and officials bear the responsibility of reversing a recent trend of apathy and paralysis towards corporate misbehavior. We saw what happened with the banks bailouts. Even if they all hide behind tacky, new names, do we really want nearly all of our news and information channeled through a tiny handful of too-big-to-control media conglomerates?

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