Comcast Set to Buy NBC

November 10th, 2009 by Daniel McCartney

The Times says Comcast is about to write GE a check for $30 billion to buy NBC Universal. The spectre of this media concentration (big cable buys big TV) has public interest groups in a tizzy — but the deal is still in the works, so any legal analysis of these concerns remains limited. Going forward, this puts yet another spin on the thick set of regulations that both authorize (under statutory copyright licenses) and compel (under communications regs) what cable companies can and must carry, or what exclusive rights they must share. And it also renews policy debates about when to extend these rules to other video providers, or when to do away with them completely. As the deal unfolds, expect to see analysis of these issues here. But more broadly, the move creates a set of incentives that should worry other communities online, who depend for existence on a network that has now acquired a new favorite flavor of content.

Apart from the swirling regulatory issues, these economic and cultural implications are far-reaching. As Bernstein Research noted in the Times article, the Comcast-NBC duo would combine to control 1 out of 5 viewing hours in the US. However, increasingly, our hours are spent doing far more than just viewing.

While many of us still watch gobs and gobs of TV, many also instead spend sizable chunks of free time participating in activities online. We can gripe over how much we should lionize different kinds of “participation”. But as Clay Shirky said last year, “[h]owever lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.”

These immersive games, social networks, and other internet communities are animating an increasing portion of the cognitive surplus that TV has left dormant for the past 50 years. And to those people who spend some evenings, not watching TV, but exploring Azeroth or poking on Facebook or ranting wildly on a blog — this sale of an old TV icon can seem cosmically irrelevant. But there is reason to give pause.

I went with my family last Friday to Adler Planetarium in Chicago. After winking at the bronze Copernicus out front, we went in and wandered around the astronomy museum for a bit, before settling down in the Definiti Space Theater to watch Cosmic Collisions. The lights dimmed, a voice cooed “Hi, this is Robert Redford, . . . ” — the ladies squeaked and the men sighed. While my mom swooned, the domed theater surrounded us with a dazzling show of big things pulled toward still bigger things, and we saw the beautiful destruction that comes when gravity makes these things collide.

I share this story not just to satisfy a self-indulgent diarist’s urge, but also because of the perspective that the show inspired. It gave an otherworldly view to the scope and scale of possible destruction.

To those who participate online in lieu of TV watching, and who see these titanic mergers as irrelevant and inconsequential: pay attention. You are part of the same online universe. It is a universe composed of bits all flowing across the same network. The network, via physical network devices coupled with its selected implementation of protocol, gives coherence and shape to the bits that fly around the network — just as physics gives coherence and shape to matter floating around the universe.

All Online TV — whether owned by Comcast or not — may be foreign to your particular world, but it is a growing mass in your universe, it pulls. This emergent TV world is located closer to some (Netflix, YouTube) than others (games, listservs), but its pull is widely felt.

I’m not saying that these big changes are good or bad: new tech kills old, old remakes itself or it dies, the cycle continues. And however big, the moves may not spell the end of any given community. But it affects Comcast infrastructure buildout going forward. When faced with a decision trading-off between a network that can carry TV-style traffic versus a network that can carry any other traffic — they now have a preference, TV wins. Thus the core physical substrate to these online worlds has acquired an interest that is often at odds. This is a big enough move to warrant your watching. It remains to be seen how strongly online TV will pull on these other online worlds. But with this deal, gravity (Comcast) now has 30 billion good reasons to pull harder.

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