GE, Uncle Sam and the future of TV

General Electric is an adept lobbyist, which could help its bid to sell its NBC Universal unit to Comcast.

By TheStreet Staff Nov 24, 2009 11:17AM

TheStreet.comBlank TV © Digital Vision Ltd./SuperStockBy Dan Freed, TheStreet.com

 

General Electric (GE) has skills lobbying on both sides of the aisle, an asset that may prove critical to the success of the much-anticipated sale of a controlling stake in its NBC Universal division to Comcast (CMCSA).

 

While some commentators have said getting regulators to approve a deal will be complicated, Antoinette Bush, a Washington D.C.-based partner in charge of the communications group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom says that should not be a major issue. Despite potential antitrust concerns, there are no rules that would bar a Comcast acquisition, she says.

 

But that’s not to say the government won't play a crucial role in NBCU's future, particularly the NBC television network.

 

DirecTV Group and Liberty Global Chairman John Malone told CNBC's David Faber in an interview aired Monday that the business model for network television is broken, with the Internet (a.k.a. Google) having sucked up all the ad revenues.

"It's going to have to be subsidized if it's going to continue and maybe four is too many," Malone said, referring to NBC, CBS, News Corp.'s Fox and Walt Disney's ABC network.

 

Malone says two of those could become giant cable networks, while the other two "end up with [retransmission fees] and support localism."

 

The question, then, is which model would be more profitable. A TV network that relies on government subsidies hardly sounds like a profit machine. Then again, if anyone can figure out a way to wring profits out of the government, it is GE. The U.S. government is GE's largest customer, accounting for 4% of its revenues in 2008.

 

 While the motivation for the sale of NBCU is lessening GE's exposure to the television business, the company will still retain a 49% stake in NBCU if the deal with Comcast goes through as planned. And if, after the business is reshaped, it turns out to be more profitable than most expect, GE may hang onto its stake and find another use for its lobbyists.

 

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