Clarence Fanto: On when Comcast takes over Time Warner


LENOX -- New cable guys are coming to town. Or are they?

If you've read about the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable, the nation's No. 2 TV-Internet-phone provider, by Comcast, No. 1 in the field, you might be wondering.

First of all, the $45 billion deal has to pass muster with federal regulators and that's not a sure shot, especially since Comcast owns the NBCUniversal TV and movie studio behemoth.

But if approved, Berkshire County residents who subscribe to the not always well-loved Time Warner will be addressing their checks or having their bank accounts debited by Comcast. Eventually, there might be some programming changes, perhaps even more channels than the 1,000 or so now available to top-tier digital subscribers.

Will prices go up? That's always a risk following mergers like this. But one reason for the deal is that more than 400,000 customers of the two corporate giants cut the cord last year, so a Comcast-Time Warner combo might be reluctant to give people even more incentive to go without cable in favor of online viewing through services such as Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu, and Vudu, among others.

Will there be layoffs? Comcast's top executive says those would be limited to the executive suites, since only one CEO and a gaggle of deputies would be needed.

But since Comcast and Time Warner don't compete in the same territory -- one argument in favor of government approval -- the same number of installers, customer service reps and other employees would be needed at the local level.

The merged company would pack a powerful punch, since it would end up owning the cable systems in 19 of the nation's 20 largest metro areas.

Time Warner's rate increases and its recent bone-headed effort to remove New England Cable News from its offerings riled up many customers in our area. It took the intervention of U.S. Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and our state reps to reverse the decision. NECN is safe for the long haul, however, since it's owned by none other than Comcast.

Consumer watchdogs are barking ferociously, howling in fact, over this proposed merger.

"This industry is notoriously unpopular with consumers due to poor customer service, not to mention ever-increasing bills, and a deal this size doesn't exactly convince us that things will get better," according to an official statement from Consumers Union.

But, as the New York Times and other national media have pointed out, Comcast will field a platoon of lobbyists in Washington to work its will on the government.

"I believe television will change more in the next five years than in the last 50," Brian L. Roberts, Comcast's chief executive, declared, and he may not be exaggerating for the sake of his cause.

The new company, if it comes to pass, would have 30 million customers in 42 states purchasing its cable TV and broadband pipeline. However, it's likely that vast areas of rural territory, including about half of the smaller communities in the Berkshires, would remain unserved by cable, with options limited to DirectTV, Dish Network or smaller satellite providers.

As The Times analysis emphasized, high-speed Internet has become the most important communications pipeline serving the public. The merged company would corner 38 percent of all broadband customers -- 32 million subscribers, vastly out-ranking AT&T with its 16 million and Verizon with nine million.

Anticipating intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill, especially on key Senate committees controlled by Democrats, Comcast has turned aside the consumer-watchdog fuss, labeling it "hysteria." As a key talking point, its execs emphasize that the two companies do not compete in a single ZIP code nationwide.

It's true that we have satellite choices besides cable, though Berkshirites can't get any local TV news from Massachusetts if they have a dish -- it all comes from Albany, N.Y.

Comcast says competitors such as the satellite services, as well as Verizon and AT&T, have picked up 18 million new customers since 2005, while old-line cable outfits have lost 10 million.

"Previous antitrust concerns are truly antiquated in light of today's marketplace realities," said David L. Cohen, a Comcast executive and its chief lobbyist.

Comcast won government approval for its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011, though it took a year.

I'd bet a year's worth of Time Warner bills that this deal will go through, eventually. Maybe I've been lucky, but I've never had a problem with Time Warner tech support, customer service or installers. In fact, I'd award them an "A" for courtesy and prompt response to my needs.

If Comcast can persuade government regulators that this deal does not affect its customers -- note that its executives are well-connected with President Obama and his administration -- this merger will turn out to be just another blip on a media screen that becomes more cluttered with choices each year.

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