Justice Dept. to review Comcast deal to take over NBC Universal

The Department of Justice, in a major antitrust review for the Obama administration, will join the Federal Communications Commission in reviewing Comcast Corp.'s deal to take control of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal.

The decision settles a tug of war between the department and the Federal Trade Commission, each of which sought to weigh in on the $30-billion deal announced in December.

But other recent big media mergers have been swung to Justice Department lawyers, so the decision did not come as a surprise to regulatory insiders. The department reviewed Liberty Media Corp.'s purchase of satellite broadcaster DirecTV, has been handling the proposed merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster and also oversaw the Disney-ABC and Viacom-CBS deals. The FTC reviewed the AOL-Time Warner merger in 2000.

Comcast’s proposed deal with General Electric for NBC Universal would hand the country’s No. 1 cable operator control of a major broadcast network, 26 TV stations, several cable channels and a movie studio. Many public interest groups and lawmakers have expressed concern over the concentration of media outlets in a single company. Comcast and NBC each also has a visible presence in online video content, an area projected for sharp growth.


Indeed, some advocates expressed jubilation at the news that the Justice Department would be scrutinizing the transaction. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, called it “incredibly good news for the deal’s opponents” because the antitrust division “has gathered unusual expertise that will forcefully analyze Comcast’s market power in the cable business.”

Overseeing the review will be Christine Varney, the Justice Department’s antitrust division chief. She is a Washington insider who most recently was a partner in the law firm Hogan & Hartson and previously a commissioner at the FTC. The department didn’t return a call for comment.

One of Varney’s top aides is Gene Kimmelman, who is chief counsel for competition policy. When Kimmelman was head of the public interest group Consumers Union, he frequently weighed in against media consolidation. However, while at Consumers Union he also supported the merger of satellite broadcasters DirecTV and Echostar, which was blocked by the Justice Department.

Congress will get its shot at Comcast executives next month. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee has not yet set a date.