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02.04.10

A Magical Merger?

As NBC Universal and Comcast executives begin the long process of integrating the two companies, they enlist… a magician. Literally. Kim Masters reports.

On Tuesday night, just a couple of days before executives from Comcast and NBC Universal were to testify before Congress on their pending merger, the top brass from both companies got together in New York for an "Integration Kick-Off Dinner." And there was magic!

Or at least, there was a magician to provide the after-dinner entertainment. On the upper level of the Maloney & Porcelli restaurant in midtown, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts pulled cards out of a deck. The entertainment, arranged by Zucker, was probably meant as an allusion to the magic that is supposed to happen when these entities consummate their marriage. But to one observer, it seemed an ironic choice on Zucker's part. "I thought, 'How fitting—a guy with all the smoke and mirrors having this magic act,'" he says.

"So while I commend NBCU and Comcast for making voluntary commitments as part of this merger," Sen. Al Franken said, "you'll have to excuse me if I don't just trust their promises."

Clearly it annoyed more than one of those gathered earlier that day on the Saturday Night Live set in New York to watch Zucker officiate at the proceedings—with his recently renewed contract and the stench of the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien fiasco still in the air. The perfect touch, a witness says, was that the magician made coins disappear.

The gathered executives heard a list of do's and don'ts for the delicate months ahead during which the merger will hover without having landed federal approval. Comcast COO Steve Burke introduced his company and Zucker talked about NBC Universal, stressing that NBC's faltering primetime schedule accounts for only about five percent of the company's total revenue. (Which is reassuring how?)

The evening was "very collegial," says another observer, but "it's a year before this all happens so there was nothing substantive about it."

On Thursday, Roberts and Zucker appeared before committees of the House and Senate to promise that bad things will not happen if the merger is approved. NBC will survive as a broadcast network and cable rates won't skyrocket, they said. There won't be massive layoffs at the combined company and NBC affiliates need not fear that Comcast will cherry-pick the strongest offerings on the network's schedule—such as they are—and put them on its cable channels.

The House was docile, but some senators bared their fangs to such a degree that Andrew Schwartzman of the public-interest Media Access Project, which opposes the merger, actually wondered whether the government might impose enough conditions on the deal to give Comcast pause. (Congress wouldn't do that, but federal regulators could.)

The standout among those aggressive senators was Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota, who has had some experience on that very Saturday Night Live set where the Comcast-NBC Uni shindig took place. "I worked for NBC for many years," he said. "And what I know from my previous career has given me reason to be concerned—let me rephrase that, very concerned—about the potential merger of Comcast and NBC Universal."

He observed that in the early '90s, the network promised the government that if they were permitted to own more of their programming, independent producers would not get hurt. Today, most shows belong to the networks that air them, and if an independent producer wants to get a program on the schedule, the networks normally demand at least part ownership.

"This is completely contrary to what NBC and the other networks said they would do," Franken said. "So while I commend NBCU and Comcast for making voluntary commitments as part of this merger, you'll have to excuse me if I don't just trust their promises."

Roberts testified that the combination would result in "a more creative and innovative company." And with his usual lack of self-consciousness, Zucker said that before the joint venture was proposed, "I was concerned about the future of broadcasting." But Comcast's commitment to NBC "gives me greater comfort in thinking about the future of broadcasting."

Some of his colleagues feel the same way—though perhaps for different reasons.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.