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Congressman: Is Comcast keeping conservatives off the air?

Running updates on Thursday's House Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger are below. Updates are also on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

The hearing concluded just before 1:40 p.m.

WASHINGTON -- More than three hours in, we had the most unusual exchange of the day.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Tex.) railed against Comcast (and before that, squeezed in criticism of Al Gore and Sharia law), accusing the cable company and parent of liberal-friendly MSNBC of keeping the conservative  channel The Blaze off its line up for political reasons.

Gohmert read an e-mail he said he received, without revealing its author, to back up his question.

"Why would Comcast want people to cling to God and their guns?" Gohmert asked before questioning if political leanings played a role in keeping conservative commentator Glenn Beck off its channel line up.

"There is no judgment being made about carriage of The Blaze based upon political perspective," said Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen.

"You're a smart man and apparently a smart attorney," Gohmert said. "You understand the consequences" of lying to Congress?

Cohen said he did.

Later, U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R., Tex.) said, "if it comes out you're making programming decisions politically based, I think there's going to be a problem."

12:30 - Local concerns dominate for urban, rural lawmakers
WASHINGTON -- There's a reason the saying "all politics is local" has lasted this long: it's very true.

The toughest questions Comcast has faced today have been largely based on parochial issues, rather than sweeping debates about anti-trust rules, national competition or the future of the internet.

Urban Democrats have pressed Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen about the merger's impact on Hispanic programming, given Comcast's ownership of Telemundo and potential rivalry with Univision. They have worried about diminished offerings if Comcast uses its expanding reach to muscle out competitors.

Cohen has touted his company's commitment to Hispanic programming.

From the other side of the aisle and demographic world, several Republicans from rural areas have questioned why Comcast has dropped RFD-TV -- a rural-focused channel -- in many markets. Republicans have generally said the government shouldn't interfere with the merger, but did have pointed questions about RFD.

In one sharp exchange, Cohen noted that consumers who wanted RFD could still opt for DirecTV or other providers that carry it. "We're not depriving anyone," Cohen said.

"Only to your consumers," shot back U.S. Rep. Jason Smith (R., Mo.).

11:50 - Comcast: "we're now competing in a different class"
WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, Comcast "woke up and realized, we're now competing in a different class," the company's executive vice president, David L. Cohen, told lawmakers here.

"The business rationale underneath the merger, really, relates to our ability to innovate, invest and stay competitive," Cohen said. Earlier he said Comcast faces national and international competition from the likes of Google, Apple and the Bells.

Speaking to a New York Congressman whose district is largely served by Time Warner, Cohen said Comcast would offer new customers "a significantly improved customer experience."

"There is more to making customers happy than just price, it is the experience we deliver to them," Cohen said.

He said Comcast would focus on, price, customer satisfaction and the consumer experience.

11:25 a.m. - Lawmaker questions merger impact on Hispanic programming
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican, said he generally supports the Comcast-Time Warner deal and believes the government shouldn't interfere in private business, but he questioned how the merger would affect Hispanic programming on channels such as Univision -- a competitor to Comcast-owned Telemundo.

The combined Comcast-Time Warner would be the dominant player is many of the country's largest cities. It would serve more than 90 pecent of Hispanic households, Farenthold said he has heard from advocates.

"What assurances can you give us that you won't discriminate against non-Comcast-NBCU," Hispanic programming, Farenthold asked.

Comcast executive Vice President David L. Cohen said he could not verify those numbers, but that Comcast has an "extraordinary commitment" to Hispanic programming.

"We’ll bring that commitment to those (new) communities in the same way we’ve brought it to the current Comcast footprint," Cohen said.

10:55 a.m. Attorney: Comcast-TWC merger "very likely illegal"
WASHINGTON -- The Comcast-Time Warner merger is "very likely illegal" a longtime antitrust attorney told House lawmakers Thursday morning.

And, added Allen Grunes, "the parties know it."

Grunes, a former attorney at the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division and now chair of the Antitrust Committee of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, provided the most substantial criticism yet heard in two hearings on the Comcast-Time Warner deal.

In his opening statement, Grunes noted that when Comcast argued for approval of its purchase of NBCUniversal a few years ago, its CEO said that Time Warner would be a competitor. Now, as they seek a new deal, Comcast executives have stressed that Comcast and Time Warner do not compete -- and that their merger therefore won't hurt consumers.

Grunes warned of "customer foreclosure" if the Comcast-TWC deal is approved -- the power of a massive cable and internet company to "keep innovative competitors from being able to conncet with their audience, or charge them so their costs go up."

"A legitimate role of antitrust (regulators) is to keep the pathways for innovation open," Grunes said.

He spoke moments after a Columbia University professor with antitrust experience made the exact opposite argument.

Concerns about too much market power, "are generally based on mistaken analogies that don't really apply," said C. Scott Hemphill, who formerly worked in the antitrust division of the New York State Attorney General.

Earlier, a representative for small and medium-sized cable companies warned of what they argued are the downsides of the merger.

"This is a complicated deal that will negatively affect your constituents," said Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association.

He predicted, for example, that a larger Comcast with new footholds would "gain greater bargaining power" when it comes to its own regional sports networks -- which could be critical to the viability of rival TV providers.

After listing other worries, Polka concluded, "the ultimate result: higher prices and fewer choices." 

10:20 a.m. - Comcast: Merger provides "substantial benefits" to consumers
WASHINGTON -- Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen told lawmakers that his company's merger with Time Warner Cable would the will provide "substantial benefits" to consumers as it leads to more investment and competition.

"We are truly an American success story," he said of Comcast, a company that grew from a small town in Mississippi to the largest cable and broadband company in the nation, and now owns NBC and Universal Studios.

"This transaction will give us the scale to invest in more innovation and infrastructure so that we can compete more effectively with our mostly larger global and international competitors," such as Google, Apple and the Bells, Cohen said in his opening statement.

"When we invest, so do our competitors," he said. The "ultimate beneficiary" of that investment and new competition "is the American consumer."

He also said Comcast would not gain "undue influence" and that recent history -- including Comcast's recent purchase of NBCUniversal -- shows that "Comcast is a company that keeps it promises and plays fair."

10 a.m. - Cable TV: "as American as apple pie"
Laying out what might be the biggest concern for the everyday consumer, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) raised questions about rising cable bills Thursday morning at a House Judiciary Commtitee hearing on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger -- but did not take a stand on the deal.

"Cable bills have risen at nearly twice the rate of inflation annually over the last 17 years, including a nearly 6 percent rise just this last year. Consumers who have grown tired of rising calbe bills have begun 'cutting the cord' and are looking to new emerging ways to receive content," Goodlatte said in a prepared statement.

"That is how the free market is supposed to operate. When costs rise, competitors emerge, and as they do, consumers have greater choices," he said.

Goodlatte, noting the importance of Comcast's cable and broadband service, opened by saying that cable TV and the internet "have become as American as baseball and apple pie ... Cable and the internet are portals from our homes and offices to the world, and are vital components of our national economy."

But Goodlatte and other top lawmakers on the panel declined to take a firm position on the deal. Instead they said the hearing would lay out the pros and cons for antitrust regulators and the Federal Communications Commission. Congress does not have a formal role in approving or blocking the merger -- though lawmakers can use their voices to advocate. Approval is up to the Department of Justice and FCC.

The top Democrat on the antitrust subcommittee echoed Comcast's arguments in his opening statement.

"There is also scant evidence that this merger will substantially increase Comcast's concentration in any given market," said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D., Ga.). He added that cable companies face increasing competition from online companies such as Netflix and Amazon.

The chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Al.) recalled a simpler time for TV watchers.

"There are those who remember when you could count the number of channels you received on your fingers, and the number depended on the strength of your atenna," Bachus said, while noting how much has since changed.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.) raised questions that have been shouted by critics of the merger.

"According to critics, the merged company would have the ability and incentive to discriminate in favor of Comcast-Time Warner content, including NBC content," Conyers said. (Comcast owns NBC).

He also said federal officials should consider stronger enforcement of behavioral requirements imposed on Comcast as part of its 2010 deal to purchase NBC-Universal.

9:20 a.m. - Marathon hearing expected on Comcast-Time Warner merger
Comcast's Executive Vice President David L. Cohen is settling in for what most expect to be a marathon hearing Thursday morning before the House Judiciary Committee.

A large contingent of Congressmen are expected to show up to question Cohen and other witnesses about the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, a plan with far-reaching consequences for TV and internet consumers across the country. Cohen only half-joked to reporters that he knows there's another meeting in the same room shortly after 2, so there is at least some defined end point.

The committee, much larger than the Senate committee that held the first hearing on the merger, is expected to bring a more wide-ranging set of questions, from the right and left alike.

The room is packed – lobbyists had people saving their places in line in the Rayburn building hallways before the hearing – and sweltering already. Cohen said he asked for the air to be turned down; now that's power.

He may be testifying for four hours or more. He's part of a panel of eight speakers.

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