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FCC Makes Call for Help

5/11/2010 6:29 AM Eastern

Washington — It turns out
the Federal Communications
Commission is looking for some
outside help to vet Comcast’s
deal for control of NBC Universal,
according to sources familiar
with the agency’s thinking.

The FCC has stopped the clock
on its review of the deal to create
the Comcast-General Electric
joint venture, but has said it
will start it up again after it receives
reports from Comcast on
the economic effects of the decision
and its impact on online video
delivery.

Philadelphia-based Comcast,
the nation’s largest cable operator,
filed those reports last week,
but it was not clear at press time
just when the hands of time
would restart.

In the meantime, the commission
has apparently informed
the parties that it is looking for a
special assistant to
oversee the review,
a move first reported
by Jonathan
Make of Communications
Daily
.

It should not come as a huge
shock that the FCC is seeking
outside expertise on a complex
matter.

When chairman Julius Genachowski
launched the agency’s “Future
of Journalism” inquiry — which
is supposed to result in recommended
policy changes that could affect
commercial and noncommercial
media alike — he brought in Steve
Waldman from Beliefnet for some
fresh perspective, and to help manage
the project.

Some folks last week were asking
whether seeking a Comcast/
GE adviser was a kind of payback
to Comcast for the BitTorrent decision,
but Comcast should not
necessarily look at the move as a
bad thing, particularly if the outside
adviser essentially serves as
a “project manager.”

Depending on whom the FCC
picks as a special adviser, the end
result could be a swifter decision
than if the agency had to handle
that and everything else it has
to do in-house. One suggestion
was that the FCC’s move signals
that it wants someone to manage
the process toward
a timeline, which
means it wants to
handle a complex
matter that involves
new issues — for
instance, the impact
of online video — in a timely
manner.

That 180-day shot clock is a bit
of sham anyway, since it is informal,
unenforceable and has been
honored in the breach as much as
the observance. Comcast knows
that all too well, having waited
404 days to get approval of its divvying
up of Adelphia with AT&T.

Comcast is definitely not
looking to repeat that
kind of a wait.

The company’s chairman and
CEO, Brian Roberts, has urged
as swift a resolution as possible,
and the FCC has itself said,
in initially denying a request for
more time to comment on the
deal, that it wanted to move expediently.

But the commission has now
extended the comment period,
thanks to the new wrinkle of
the BitTorrent decision, and has
stopped the clock while it collected
more data. It now has that
data,
so the clock should be re-starting
soon. An FCC spokesperson could
not say just when.

Someone to oversee and coordinate
the deal without a day
job that also includes other media
bureau issues like ownership
reviews, and broadband implementation,
could actually help
the process.

Who should the FCC get to oversee
the merger? It will likely be a
veteran attorney, but one with no
conflicts, which in this town could
take some time to find (if the FCC
picks someone before this page
prints, ignore that last line).

We went to an industry wag or
two to get some tongue-in-cheek,
and not so tongue-in-cheek, suggestions
for someone to manage
the review.

More than one suggested
Blair Levin, who just
finished shepherding a
complex project for the FCC and
getting it in—almost—on time.
His last day as broadband adviser
was last Friday, so he could
be available.

Former FCC chairman Kevin
Martin’s name surfaced more
than once among the comic-relief
suggestions, given his perceived
vendetta against cable. But Martin
is already involved as a lawyer
representing groups critical of
Comcast and the deal.

Larry King? “If anyone knows
how to rush through a merger, he
does,” says one industry wag on
promise of anonymity. “And he
certainly knows how to ask direct
questions.”

One name proffered as a candidate
for real is Toni Cook Bush, a
partner and head of the communications
group at law firm Skadden,
and a former top Hill staffer.

Another serious suggestion
was Tom Wheeler, a former National
Cable Television Association
chief now with Washington,
D.C., venture-capital firm Core
Capital Partners.

Wheeler was an adviser to
President Obama’s transition
team, though he may be betterknown
for moving than meeting
a key deadline. Wheeler was
instrumental in the administration’s
successful effort to move
the broadcast DTV deadline from
February to June 2009.

September