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FCC to Debate Comcast-NBC Merger with Public Forums

by Tony Romm

Debate over Comcast’s $30 billion bid for NBC Universal heads to Chicago next month, where the Federal Communications Commission plans to hold its first field hearing on the proposed mega-merger.

The FCC will announce the July 13 public forum as soon as Thursday afternoon, an agency official told POLITICO. Regulators selected Chicago in part because Comcast and NBC maintain equal footing in the city, which is well regarded for its diversity.

The announcement arrives as the House Judiciary Committee revs up its own regulatory engine ahead of a scheduled Monday field hearing in Los Angeles. That forum comes at the insistence of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who long implored the FCC to incorporate community reaction in its review of a merger that would combine the country’s largest cable and broadband provider with one of the nation’s top broadcast stations.

Waters told POLITICO through a spokesman on Thursday that she was “very pleased by the FCC decision to hold this public hearing, as it is extremely important to have a transparent discussion of a merger of this size that would result in a single corporation having unprecedented control of what we see and hear in the media — on television, the Internet, on the movie screens and more.”

At least one top FCC member plans to attend the July forum: Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who last month touted field hearings as the only way for the "commission to interact and see up close how Americans feel." It is likely that Commissioner Michael Copps, another vocal public hearing supporter, will also make the trip to Chicago.

Comcast, however, said it awaits the FCC’s announcement on “who they choose to invite” before committing any staff members to the July event.

“We definitely hope that the people who participate in the hearings have a high level of discourse and that they’re serious, and we expect the FCC to conduct hearings that drive the dialogue forward,” a spokeswoman told POLITICO.

While Comcast’s bid for NBC is unprecedented in its size and scope, the FCC’s forthcoming forum is not uncommon for the agency, which typically hits the streets to canvass the public ahead of big proceedings.

The commission sought to sponge up public opinion ahead of AOL’s famous purchase of Time Warner in 2000, listened to complaints on media ownership rules eight years later and held countless workshops on high-speed Internet before producing its National Broadband Plan this year — among other events.

At times, however, those hearings have become vocal, emotional or rancorous, though officials hope the NBC-Comcast proceeding will be far more civilized and insightful.

“I think it’s essential that we hear from folks beyond the Beltway, [and] it’s up to the FCC to create a structure that’s conducive to that input in a constructive way,” said a spokesman for Clyburn, noting the commissioner felt similarly. “But we think that’s possible and we’ll work with all parties involved to make sure that’s possible.”

Thursday also marks the day on which the FCC will restart its 180-day clock to review the Comcast-NBC deal. The agency paused its formal proceedings earlier this year to solicit additional information from the Philadelphia-based cable company about the economic effects of its merger.

The clock now resumes at Day 29, in time for the FCC to complete its review by early November. A Comcast spokeswoman predicted the public hearing — which will occur during the first leg of the merger review — will not set back the agency’s time clock, contrary to some skeptics’ fears.

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