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Report Suggests FCC About to Kill Comcast's Time Warner Cable Deal

The latest FCC maneuver would make it painfully difficult for Comcast to push ahead with its merger plans.

Consumers Union / Facebook

Comcast’s effort to convince regulators to approve its $45 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Cable appears to be on life support after Federal Communications Commission staff is reportedly recommending sending the matter to an administrative law judge for a hearing.

The move, reported first by the Wall Street Journal Monday night, would effectively kill the deal since it would drown the company in paperwork through the agency’s drawn-out judicial process. The FCC wouldn’t technically kill the Comcast* deal with this move, but it would make the path forward so long and onerous that most companies would just give up.

The last time the FCC took this route in a major deal was in 2002 when it killed EchoStar’s effort to buy DirecTV (which was later acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), after regulators frowned on the effort to consolidate the nation’s two satellite-TV providers. The agency also designated AT&T’s deal to acquire T-Mobile for a hearing in 2011, but that was less significant because the Justice Department had already sued to block the deal.

Unlike other agencies, FCC staffers mostly report to the chairman’s office; when they make recommendations like this, it is with his approval. FCC staffers briefed aides for the other four FCC commissioners on Wednesday about the deal.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment.

The FCC has had a team of lawyers examining the deal for more than a year and it’s been clear for some time the Comcast deal was in trouble.

One major sign was that the agency hadn’t really asked outside parties what sort of conditions could be placed on the deal to make it more palatable. That’s a common step in the review process if the agency is looking at approving the deal with conditions.

The FCC looks at whether mergers are in the public interest, which is a fairly broad, nebulous standard. The Justice Department examines whether deals run afoul of antitrust laws.

Justice Department lawyers have also been reviewing the deal, and a report in Bloomberg last week suggested some had concerns about the deal and had recommended blocking it.

The Justice Department’s deal review process is much more secretive than the FCC’s review — which is partly in the open — so it’s harder to gauge what it will do. Comcast lawyers met with DOJ attorneys Wednesday about the deal.

Generally, Justice Department and FCC officials work together on reviewing these transactions, and they don’t contradict one another. The FCC’s proposal to send the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger for a hearing with an administrative law judge is a pretty good sign the Justice Department is also gearing up to block the deal.

A Comcast spokeswoman said Wednesday night that the company “had one in a series of meetings” with the Justice Department today, as well as another meeting at the FCC. “As with all of our DOJ discussions in the past and going forward, we do not believe it is appropriate to share the content of those meetings publicly, and we, therefore, have no comment.”

She declined to comment about the FCC meeting.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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