It's time for another look at Comcast's proposed takeover of NBC-Universal.
Yes, you read that right. Someone who works for a public interest group which has raised concerns about the potential anticompetitive behavior of the largest ISP and a Big Media goliath is having second thoughts.
We digress. After the last couple of weeks, one overriding observation can't be avoided: These crazy kids deserve each other. Let NBCU and Comcast get together and watch the whole thing go up in flames so big it will make AOL Time Warner look like a little campfire. In fact, if Comcast was smart, it might be rethinking the whole deal about now.
To begin, go back a couple of weeks to, of all places, a Washington, D.C. Courtroom. There, attorney Helgi Walker is arguing a case on behalf of Comcast, her client, which is challenging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling that Comcast violated the Commission's open Internet policy by throttling BitTorrent users. Judge Raymond Randolph asked Walker what the harm would be to Comcast even if Walker lost the case? After all, it would only be a piece of paper in a file somewhere, because there were really no penalties attached.
Walker replied that such a finding was much more than a simple piece of paper. It would harm Comcast's reputation. If all Comcast hard to worry about was a piece of paper in an FCC file harming its reputation, the company would be in great shape.
Instead, let's recall the case of Mona “The Hammer” Shaw, who in 2007 took herself down to a Comcast service office in Manassas, VA, and smashed up the computer of a Comcast service representative. Shaw, who was 75 at the time, and her husband were kept waiting for hours in the August heat at a Comcast office, only to be told the person they wanted to see had left for the day. This after failed service calls and a service cut-off. She called Comcast service reps, “ a bunch of sub-moronic imbeciles.” Want to bet how many of the 475 comments to that article praised Comcast?
On a more macro level, their customer satisfaction rankings are abysmal. The 2009 J.D. Power survey showed that in every region of the country, Comcast ranks consistently way below the average of every other video provider including, shockingly enough, AT&T. The American Customer Satisfaction Index also found Comcast at the bottom of the barrel, having lower scores each year since 2001.
There are web sites, like www.badcable.org devoted to Comcast's dreadful service and high rates. Meanwhile, CEO Brian Roberts is being tagged as one of the most overpaid CEOs in the country. And Comcast is worried about a slap on the wrist from the FCC. Doesn't make much sense in that context.
Now here's a question: What company could possibly match Comcast's reputation for incompetence and bumbling? How about one in which its employees trash the company on national television, in which the news about the company is a public joke for weeks, and, to top it off, has seen the quality of its product completely disintegrate?
If I had to pick one company that met all of those criteria, I'd pick NBC, Comcast's nice little takeover target. After all, what company doesn't like to see another it hopes to buy be the subject of a story like this: NBC's Slide to Troubled Nightly Punch Line, in the New York Times. (Note: read it quickly before it disappears behind the Times' paywall, coming soon.)
When Conan O'Brien, the man promised the Tonight Show if he waited for five years for Jay Leno to leave, then gets it snatched away, telling viewers that if NBC didn't want people to see him, they should leave him on NBC, well, you can't buy that kind of publicity.
Business Week hailed NBC's attempts to reverse seven years of failing ratings. After dropping drama out of the 8 p.m. time slot and then blowing up 10 p.m. hour as well, NBC is in great shape. How great? Even at the Golden Globe awards, broadcast on NBC, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks made NBC jokes, with Roberts kindly saying that the network is “in the toilet.”
The guy responsible for the madness is, of course, Jeff Zucker, president of NBCU, who would head the combined programming department for the combined Comcast/NBCU. He played hardball with O'Brien, threatening to keep O'Brien off the air for three and a half years, and now may end up paying the redhead $30 million or so not to work on NBC so he can go to Fox. Great job, Jeff.
For good measure, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, which is NBC's parent, also got a nod as one of the most overpaid bosses.
If the Obama Administration approves this deal, it could well lose its last bit of street cred with the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, which is already angry about deals cut with the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street bailouts and other items. Allowing the largest media conglomeration in history would be seen as fitting right in with the special-interest culture of Washington.
Under that scenario, it will be up to President Obama and his favorite Brown Nosers (I mean Blue Dogs) to carry the party's banner in 2012. Good luck with that. Everyone else will have thrown up their hands and joined the Tea Parties. (These are Democrats, however, so some of the new chapters will be the Chai Soirees.) Not that base partisan politics considerations should govern such a decision. This isn't the Bush Justice Department after all, which was the most partisan in recent memory. One simply hopes that the proper principles guide the decision.
It's this history that give one some comfort that even if the Justice Department sanctions this merger, it would do so knowing the deal will be the source of a million more jokes for years to come.