There’s a lot of good coverage about yesterday’s news that General Electric has inked a deal with Comcast to sell majority ownership of NBC Universal to Comcast, and it is a very complicated story. NBC always seemed a strange item for GE’s portfolio, but then, GE is a very large enterprise involved in a lot of things about which the public may be unaware. It’s probably better that NBC Universal has been one unit among many unrelated businesses with standard performance expectations. When Comcast gets the keys, NBC Universal will also become a prime strategic asset in a very large enterprise involved in maximizing control over a very large “content pipeline.”
This is an admittedly subjective observation which may not be accurate, but reporting on this deal so far seems to have treated regulatory approval as a formality. If Wal-Mart decided to buy Proctor & Gamble or another of its largest suppliers, would regulatory approval be a foregone conclusion? Probably not.
Another question — what is the biggest threat to the long term viability of cable television companies (to say nothing of legacy media companies)? Our money is on the web upending the entire arrangement. This is a complex issue which we will explore frequently. A good place to start when considering all of this is to remember how YouTube begat Hulu and Hulu begat more problems than its creators could anticipate for their walled garden model. Comcast has a very strong interest in maintaining the status quo in the way television works now and would rather not have a scenario unfold where its ISP business is helping upend its cable television business. A closed system where one company controls a significant portion of both the content and delivery mechanism and also has massive control over the technology likeliest to threaten that system seems unlikely to promote competition, innovation and quality.
Perhaps the better way to see it is to consider what happens to other industries in their terminal phase — consolidation and decline. The next time you fly to Europe on Delta, chances are you are flying on a route Delta bought from Pan Am, and if you are flying that route on a Delta 747, chances are you are flying on an airplane Delta acquired from its recent merger with Northwest. Of course the biggest flaw in this comparison between industries is that you will probably never be able to build your own 747 and fly it to Europe on a route of your own, but you can produce broadcast quality content and get it to an international audience entirely without the assistance of massive multinational media companies.