Two of TV's largest players are about to create the world's biggest laboratory for brainstorming the future of television for all of us.
Cable TV giant Comcast is spending $13.75 billion to buy a controlling stake in NBC Universal from General Electric. Essentially, a company that makes TV products is joining forces with the company that puts those products on your TV screens, creating a company owning one-quarter of all cable TV homes and one of every seven TV channels.
Comcast is bringing its cable network with 23.8 million subscribers and an array of cable channels (E!, the Golf Channel, Versus, G4 and 10 regional sports networks, among others) together with NBC Universal's NBC network, cable channels (MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, USA Network, among others), Universal movie studio, Spanish language channel Telemundo, 10 local NBC affiliate stations, the NBC Studios TV production company and much more.
The possibilities seem endless. Resources provided by NBC Sports could turn Comcast's Versus, Golf Channel and regional sports channels into real rivals for Disney's ESPN-centered sports media empire. Movies and TV shows owned by NBC studio and Universal could become the core of new on demand channels for Comcast subscribers.
Indeed, Comcast could make special NBC Universal content available to its cable subscribers, 15.7 million high speed Internet customers and 7.4 million mobile customers at once, becoming a huge portal for all kinds of media experienced under one corporate banner. And all they really need to achieve this, experts say, is avoid getting in their own way.
"It's about good management," said Larry Kramer, an industry expert who served as the first president of CBS Digital Media and founded the business news-centered Web site, Marketwatch. "Most deals fail, even if they were good ideas, because management didn't do what it took to make it work. ... It's going take strong managers to push the traditional boundaries away and reward people for taking chances."
Critics point to a number of failed media mergers in past years, including the attempt to combine AOL and Time Warner and CBS and Viacom. Kramer blamed infighting and a clash of corporate cultures for the failure of AOL Time Warner, considered by some to be the worst merger in business history.
So what makes the Comcast/NBC Universal marriage any better?
"How about hubris?" said Richard Dorfman, managing director with Richard Alan Inc., a media-focused financial advisory and investment company in New York. "NBC Universal is a business whose primary market — broadcast TV — is contracting. You're creating a lumbering giant, with the emphasis on lumbering."
Initially, experts predicted the cable company would get rid of the sagging broadcast elements — perhaps selling off the local TV stations and turning NBC into a cable-only network. But in a letter sent to key lawmakers Thursday morning, Comcast promised not to take certain actions that might draw concern from media watchdogs. Among their pledges: to keep NBC as a free over-the-air broadcast network and to allow NBC's news coverage to proceed without interference.
Essentially, Comcast must prove that a media-based cable company can be a better steward for one of the nation's largest TV providers than a company best known for making missiles and household appliances.
At a time when even Oprah Winfrey is betting the future of her brand on cable TV, that might not turn out to be a bad wager.