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Comcast seeks to control content via NBCU buy

Comcast would expand into a new universe if its reported offer for a controlling interest in NBC Universal succeeds.

Already a cable giant, Comcast would own most of the NBC peacock and its array of shows, past and present. It would own most of a major movie studio. Most important, it would own the second-largest video and film library in the world.

It would get the content, get to decide how to distribute that content - and also get a big voice in the future of digital fare on the Web.

"It's ultimately all about content," said Leonard Klady, senior editor for Screen International.

If it goes through, the question becomes: How will Comcast's offerings change - and NBC's programming?

The answer seems to be: lots of changes for Comcast, not many right away for NBC.

Large companies used to be fond of buying up entertainment companies in the golden age of what was then called "vertical integration." Lately, however, some companies have been shedding their entertainment arms. Viacom bought CBS Corp. in 2000 and split it off in 2005. Time Warner split off all its cable concerns this year.

But, as Klady put it: "This deal makes sense. You can see the connection." That's because Comcast is a content-hungry cable provider.

"Comcast seems to have this ravenous appetite for content," said Robert Thompson, professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "They want to guarantee that they have lots of in-house content, and also guarantee their control of the means to distribute it - whether that be via cable TV, as in on-demand, or via the Web." He points out that Comcast made an ill-fated bid for Disney in 2004, then, too, for the sake of content.

Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research at Horizon Media in New York, said, "Comcast gains programming assets that were lacking in their portfolio." This includes the NBC/Universal film and video library, second only to that of Time Warner. That acquisition alone, says Adgate, would put Comcast "on a level playing field with Disney, NewsCorp, and Warner Bros."

Comcast, already in 23 million homes, has a distribution network already in place. The main decision would be how to sell and package the huge assets in the NBCU library.

So Comcast customers might soon see a film and video distributor to rival Netflix, especially online, or greatly expanded Comcast on-demand offerings.

The deal would also help Comcast respond to the rise of digital content. It's no secret that Comcast head Brian L. Roberts is no fan of Hulu, the popular Web site offering free access to content from NBC, Disney, and News Corp. In effect, sites like Hulu let people have stuff for free that Comcast and others pay for. Earlier this year, Comcast and Time Warner partnered to create TV Everywhere, an initiative that would require users to prove they already subscribe to a cable provider before they could watch certain shows online.

Says Adgate, "All cable operators have concerns about the PC/TV convergence. If you're streaming content into your computer, what do you need a cable system for? If you're watching something on the Internet, you don't need a TV or the box on top of the set."

If the proposed deal goes through, Comcast could withhold NBC shows from Hulu, make it harder to see them there, or charge for them. The proposed deal might allow Comcast to assert greater control of where content goes, and either block or gatekeep the migration, slow but sure, of content from TV to the Web.

But what of NBC? Will it start looking different? Will the peacock turn into a toucan? Will The Jay Leno Show, for which the audience slipped markedly after the initial week, be in danger?

When Disney bought ABC in 1995, said Thompson, "you really noticed that relatively quickly in prime time and Saturday mornings. In Comcast's case, I'm not sure we'd notice vast changes in NBC's lineup."

Klady agreed: "I don't see much changing at all in the first six months, maybe longer."

On one hand, as Klady pointed out, "NBC is not in great shape" - currently showing fourth in prime-time ratings behind CBS, Fox, and ABC - "nor has Universal had a run of success in several years."

But even if Comcast doesn't buy NBCU, the livelihoods of the people who work there are under pressure. Careers live and die by ratings, market share, box office - and perception in the industry. Thompson said Comcast "will try desperately to get a viable and competitive lineup of programming.

"But it's not clear what 51 percent of NBC/Universal would buy Comcast, in terms of seats on the board."

Klady said, "Comcast isn't likely to try to shake up the entire board; and then again, they might have people in mind they want to bring in."

If the deal goes down, said Klady, "any big changes will take a while. Comcast has kicked the tires. Now it's time for the big test drive."