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Originally published November 20, 2009 at 2:16 PM | Page modified November 20, 2009 at 4:16 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Block NBC/Comcast deal to protect consumer choice

The Obama administration ought to flex some regulatory muscle to protect the variety of media choice consumers enjoy, writes Editorial Page Editor Ryan Blethen. For starters, the administration should block the sale of NBC Universal to Comcast Corp.

Times editorial page editor

By blocking the sale of NBC Universal to Comcast Corp., the Obama administration can send a message to the behemoth corporations that dominate nearly every aspect of American life.

Big is not always better, especially when it comes to media. Nearly every aspect of the media has been folded into the possession of a small number of gigantic corporations. No subset of the media has escaped. Newspapers, movie studios and book publishers live under a few dominating umbrellas.

Now Comcast is trying to buy a controlling interest in NBC Universal from General Electric Co., a coupling that never made sense. How news and entertainment fit with a company in the refrigerator and airplane-engine business is a mystery to me. The fact that GE wants to unload NBC Universal is good. Unfortunately, Comcast is poised to be the buyer, which would mean NBC Universal would be shed by a company that had no good reason to own it, to a company that gains too much control from marrying its massive delivery system with a leader in content.

NBC Universal's quiver is packed with cable programming, which is attractive to Comcast, a company that has been on a long feast that began in 1963 as a tiny cable company in Mississippi.

Comcast, now based in Philadelphia, is already too big. It is in 38 states and has 24 million subscribers. Comcast is also the country's largest Internet provider and is the third-largest phone-service provider.

Like other corporations that are too big, Comcast owns properties on the fringe of its core business, such as Philadelphia's professional hockey and basketball teams. NBC Universal's movie studio wouldn't be the first Comcast-owned movie studio. It has a portion of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Simply put, Comcast owning NBC Universal concentrates too much power over the programming the public watches. A Comcast/NBC Universal company could charge other cable companies inflated fees to run over its network and wall off all manner of content now easily accessible on TV and the Internet.

Comcast has shown it has the stomach to aggressively control content to the detriment of consumers. In 2007 The Associated Press found that Comcast was blocking file-sharing programs that ate up bandwidth. The Federal Communications Commission ordered Comcast not to block online file-sharing services like BitTorrent. Comcast appealed the decision.

What's more troubling about this deal is that it would spark Comcast's competitors to try and swing similar deals, which would further consolidate an already narrow field of companies that control what Americans watch and read.

John Malone, no stranger to the big deal, said as much last week. His Liberty Entertainment Unit merged with DirecTV, of which he is the chairman. The move could clear the way for either Verizon or AT&T to acquire DirecTV, the nation's largest satellite-TV provider.

The consumer loses if Comcast takes on NBC Universal. Things will be worse if either AT&T or Verizon buys DirecTV.

Federal regulators must do what they haven't done for decades: regulate. Don't allow Comcast and its competitors to obliterate the precious few choices consumers have left.

Obstructing the deal would also instill some consumer confidence that Obama's regulators are serious about protecting the public.

Ryan Blethen's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: rblethen@seattletimes.com

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