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Can Indy Web TV Survive the Comcast/NBC Merger?

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In the eyes of many independent Internet TV companies, the Comcast and NBC/Universal merger can be viewed as one of two things; a misguided business decision in the vein of the unfortunate AOL/Time Warner merger, or at worst, a tipping point that ignites an era of large-scale consolidation at the expense of competition.

The latter could create an environment in which ISP providers like Verizon and AT&T feel compelled to merge with content companies like ABC/Disney and CBS/Viacom to control how the majority of content, even those of its competitors, is delivered.

One fear is that a tiered Internet that gives preferential treatment to certain programming may soon follow. The theory suggests ISP's would punish users with forcefully slowed connections to certain, less-than-financially-favorable content alternatives to discourage engagement. Without that engagement, audiences will fail to adopt new options and would be tactically omitted from the competitive landscape. Additionally, the trend would not only install gatekeepers to new start-ups that challenge the status quo, but also create a fundamental threat to a user's access to information.

Historically, these kinds of precedent-setting-mergers have had a profound consequence for independents. During the late 1980's, the FCC began dismantling the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (aka "fin-syn"), paving the way for studios and networks to merge. The policy also led to the relatively quick eradication of the independent TV production business - a side effect the FCC did not intend and was promised by NBC would not happen.

If the industry's worst fears are realized and the Comcast/NBCU merger does indeed lead to unprecedented consolidation and a tiered Internet, then there are still several ways an independent content company can stay competitive. It's very possible to avoid the outcome that befell the independent TV industry two decades ago.

First, appreciate the independent online press as your friend and ally. Some of the most influential websites are either outright independently owned, or independently managed as a member of a larger company. These individuals are extremely valuable in not just promoting your content, but also in fulfilling a watchdog role in search of potential abuse. The independent online press was arguably the first to report Comcast's throttling of bandwidth to BitTorrent sites (a charge the AP would later confirm with its own extensive tests despite Comcast's repeated denials).

Second, continue to harness social media in its many forms. It has become an incredible marketing and communications tool available to anyone who will invest the energy into it. Facebook, Twitter, Ning and other influential social networking sites have largely turned down their corporate suitors, including the traditional media conglomerates (MySpace has become a cautionary tale). Facebook has been especially helpful to my company's most recent project and the powerful social network has certainly been very valuable to many other independently produced endeavors.

Third, use the Comcast/NBCU merger as further motivation to create daring, distinct programming. Television of the 1980's saw several critically and culturally significant shows, often produced by the independent TV community. The era's most successful series, "the Cosby Show," would have been turned into an entirely different program had it not been creatively controlled by the independent Carsey-Werner. Other prominent independent TV writers and producers at the time such as the late Stephen Cannell attributed their own success to the creative control they once wielded before the networks and studios consolidated.

Clearly, mergers such as Comcast/NBCU are not in the best interests of the free market. Michael Copps, the FCC Commissioner and lone dissenting vote against the merger, frankly stated the "Comcast-NBCU joint venture grievously fails the public interest." A point that Harvard Law's Lawrence Lessig expands upon in remarkable detail. However, the best course of action that independent companies can take is to make greater, more skilled use of the tools available to them and to trust their creative instincts.