The Tennis Channel's CEO lobbed concerns about the proposed Comcast and NBC Universal merger Tuesday similar to what other independent programmers have expressed. Ken Solomon, who heads the 7-year-old network, urged the FCC to lock in safeguards to prohibit Comcast from strong-arming smaller networks.
Solomon said conditions should require Comcast to carry independent networks with the same terms as NBC Universal programming on its cable system. If there are "differences in treatment," Comcast would have the burden of proof about explaining the discrepancy, he said.
But Colleen Abdoulah, who heads the WOW! Cable system, suggested at the Chicago public forum that Comcast could still rig the system. Comcast could essentially agree with itself on a small affiliate fee for an NBCU channel -- which would not cost the wider company anything -- but would drive down the fees it would pay the Tennis Channel.
Solomon also serves as chairman of Ovation, an independent artistic network, which puts him in an interesting spot. Ovation's CEO Charles Segars supports the Comcast-NBCU venture.
Comcast has tried to soothe fears among independent networks and others that it would abuse its clout by pledging to add 10 independent networks to its cable lineup. But Solomon suggested that is a somewhat empty promise; it does not ensure the new channels will be carried with the same terms and conditions of Comcast-owned programming.
Comcast could give those networks "minimal distribution on a narrowly penetrated tier, severely curtailing" their competitiveness with the media giant' portfolio.
Solomon's opposition Tuesday was not a surprise, given that Tennis Channel and Comcast are locked in a carriage battle before the FCC. Their disagreement predates the joint venture proposal. But Solomon said that matter is separate, and Tennis Channel does not want to "litigate" it in the context of whether the merger should go through.
In his testimony, Solomon expressed fears in the sports arena that Comcast-NBCU will have an "incentive to engage in conduct" that favors its content over others. He said NBC Sports could be used as "leverage" to "benefit" the Versus channel and Comcast's regional sports networks.
"In assessing the proposed transaction, it is important that the [FCC] recognize the threat posed to programmers not affiliated with Comcast, and take steps to ameliorate that threat," he said.
Perhaps signaling that Tennis Channel is more open to accepting the merger if conditions are met, the network is not a member of the new Coalition for Competition in Media, which includes independents Bloomberg and WealthTV and is against the proposed venture as constituted.
Separately, the FCC informed Comcast and NBCU that it officially re-started the shot clock on its review of their proposed merger. That makes today July 13, day 45 of the merger review.