World and Nation

Comcast receives approval for NBC Universal merger

Comcast received government approval on Tuesday to acquire NBC Universal, emerging from a lengthy review with a list of conditions, the most important aimed at preventing the new media conglomerate from thwarting competition in online video.

But at the end of that process, which regulators described as the most intense scrutiny ever for a planned media merger, Comcast said it believed it faced few onerous restrictions.

“I don’t think any of the conditions are particularly restrictive,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, in a conference call on Tuesday afternoon. He noted that the company was not forced to sell any assets. It did agree, however, to give up NBC’s management role in Hulu, the online TV website, while retaining a financial stake.

The combination of Comcast’s cable and Internet systems and NBC Universal’s channels will create a media powerhouse, and it will be the first time a cable company will control a major broadcast network.

With the government approvals in hand, Comcast executives can now participate in management decisions at NBC Universal — which they have been champing at the bit to do — though they cannot formally lead the company until the deal closes, which is expected by the end of the month.

Cohen said the deal’s most complicated condition “no doubt” involved online video, reflecting the government’s difficult task of applying antitrust law and other regulations to the rapidly evolving and not yet well-defined marketplace for online video.

In the almost two years since Comcast began negotiating to buy NBC — the deal was hatched in the spring of 2009 — consumers’ TV habits have shifted considerably. Online video viewing has grown in popularity, even as television advertising has rebounded from its recessionary lows.

One result of the consumer tilt toward online video has been the rise of Netflix, which has pivoted from its beginnings as a DVD-by-mail business to a streaming video company. The success of Netflix in changing consumer behavior has raised fears that the heart of Comcast’s business — selling cable subscriptions — could be in jeopardy.

The Federal Communications Commission, which reviewed the deal along with the Justice Department, acknowledged Tuesday that the combined entity could create risks “to the development of innovative online video distribution services.”

So in some cases, under rules enforced by the FCC and the Justice Department, Comcast may be required to distribute certain programming on the Internet — if one of its rivals does so first. For example, if Apple were to reach a deal with Viacom to distribute MTV’s reality shows, Comcast could be required to offer comparable shows to Apple under similar terms. In addition, in certain cases, Comcast would be required to offer Apple the same terms for its entire suite of NBC channels that it gives to cable companies.

This, however, is largely theoretical for now and would probably be prohibitively expensive. Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG, estimated that if Netflix were to offer all of NBC Universal’s programming, it would cost it nearly $1 billion a year.

Susan P. Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, said there was a long history of government intervention into telecommunications to allow for new distributors.

“This is the latest intervention to provide daylight — just to open up enough daylight to give this nascent online marketplace a chance to take off,” said Crawford, who is writing a book, “The Big Squeeze,” about the Comcast deal.

Some public interest groups were sharply critical of the deal’s approval. Free Press, a nonprofit media reform group, said it failed to live up to “Barack Obama’s promise to promote media diversity and prevent excessive media concentration.”

The FCC vote was 4-1, with the senior Democratic commissioner, Michael J. Copps, casting the dissenting vote. Copps said in a statement on Tuesday that the deal “confers too much power in one company’s hands.”