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If Comcast and NBC CEOs Will Fib to Congress, How Do You Trust Them About Broadband's Future?

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Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and NBC CEO Jeff Zucker went in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust and Competition and the House Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications to defend their proposed merger. And while "Say Anything" was actually produced by competitor 20th Century Fox, that seemed to be the mantra of both CEO, as both got caught out in some creative truth stretching -- if not outright lies.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts got called out by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) for the difference between what Roberts had told Franken privately and what Comcast's lawyers were saying elsewhere. Apparently, when Roberts met Franken a few days earlier, Roberts said that the Federal Communications Commission "program access rules" would ensure that Comcast/NBCU would make programming available to everyone. Roberts apparently neglected to mention Comcast had challenged the FCC's rules in court. Roberts also neglected to mention that his company was actively fighting rules which limit the ability of cable operators to discriminate against independent programmers, and that Comcast's lawyers had told the FCC that it didn't have the ability to regulate carriage decisions.

Franken was less than pleased by what he regarded as Roberts' lack of condor. "In other words, looking to get approval for this merger, you sat there in my office and told me to my face that these rules would protect consumers but your lawyers had just finished arguing in front of the Commission that it would be unconstitutional to apply these rules." Roberts bristled at the suggestion he said one thing to Franken while his company did the opposite. "When we met, perhaps I was confused. I thought that we were talking about program access, now you are talking about program carriage," Roberts explained. "Whether it's program access or program carriage, did you not say that this rule protects the people of Minnesota?" Franken shot back.

Roberts merely shaded things a bit and perhaps told a fib of omission by not mentioning that his company continued to fight the legality of the FCC rules he urges lawmakers to rely on as protecting independent programming. But when Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) pressed Jeff Zucker on the possibility that the combined Comcast/NBC would try to crush broadband-based competitors and slow down the trend of people "cutting the cord" and dropping their cable subscriptions, Zucker told what can only charitably be called a major fib. Boucher asked Zucker about online video provider (of which NBC owns a chunk and provides a bunch of the content), which last year blocked users of the application Boxee from using Hulu -- a move apparently designed to keep users from streaming internet content to the TV screen. Zucker promptly responded that "Hulu's management" had made the decision because Boxee was "illegally taking the content that was on Hulu."

Oddly, when asked about this very same incident last May, Zucker said something entirely different. Back then, Zucker claimed that he (not Hulu's management) wanted Hulu to remain "an online experience" rather than something people watched on their television. This version -- rather than what Zucker told Boucher yesterday -- is far more consistent with what Hulu CEO Jason Kilar wrote on his blog at the time Hulu blocked Boxee. And while claiming that an online innovator encourages piracy is always a safe bet (there are members of Congress who would sponsor a citation honoring Bin Laden if Al Qaeda blew up Pirate Bay), no one appears to have previously made the claim that Boxee was "illegally taking" Hulu's content before -- probably because Hulu gives its content away for free to anyone with an internet browser. Why would Zucker have said in an interview in May that Hulu blocked Boxee because they wanted it to remain an "online experience" (rather than an "over the top" cable competitor) when he could have said in May that Boxee were "illegally taking" Hulu's content, if that really were the reason?

Frankly, it seems far more likely that Zucker knew that his quote from May 2009 would undercut everything he and Roberts keep saying now in February 2010 about how they won't try to squash internet competition with their cable service. So he decided to tell Boucher something more politically acceptable, apparently on the assumption that no one would notice the conflict between Zucker's May 2009 interview and Zucker's February 2010 testimony.

I grant that in both the entertainment biz and the politics biz, truth is a flexible concept. But these two CEOs are pushing a merger that will reshape how people get news and entertainment on the basis of "trust us, we would never use our colossal market power to strangle internet competition in the cradle before it can threaten our existing revenues." I don't think it's asking too much to wonder why we should trust them on this when they have no trouble fibbing to members of Congress.