Comcast is in talks with GE to buy NBC Universal which would give Comcast all of NBC’s television and movie assets. According to the Wall Street Journal we should know in a matter of weeks if agreement is reached but any deal would certainly be given a lengthy review by anti-trust authorities. A concern often cited is the motive of vertical foreclosure: a merged Comcast-NBC would use their alliance to gain advantage over competitors for content provision. This issue also foreshadows those that would arise with internet content provision should net-neutrality be abandoned.

Comcast is a monopoly provider of access to content. Think of Comcast as the guy at the door charging you a fee to get into the party. You want to get in because inside there are people providing various services, perhaps for an additional fee. The best structure of all for Comcast would be to take ownership of all the service-providers inside and act as a joint monopoly collecting entrance fees and selling the services inside.

What would such a monopoly do to maximize profits? It would maximize the value of the services offered inside and then extract that value in the form of an entrance fee.

But this same outcome is achieved with the structure in which the services inside are provided competitively. Competition among service providers maximizes the value of the service thereby enabling the monopoly gatekeeper to earn the same profits as if it owned the entire enterprise.

So if you think that content is provided competitively (in my opinion its pretty close) then you shouldn’t worry too much about vertical foreclosure. On the other hand we should still wonder why Comcast is interested in NBC. Are there any plausible efficiency gains from a merger?

Merger review is based on looking for likely anti-competitive results or motives and if there is no clear anti-competitive motive then the merger is approved. But it’s worth considering a different standard here (and in the net-neutrality debate as well.) If there are no clear efficiency gains and a merger enables anti-competitive behavior even though that behavior may not have any clear rationale, then the merger should be rejected.

Allowing the merger would be like leaving scissors within reach of my (then) three-year-old. No good will come of it, and if I trust that she acts in her self-interest no harm would come either. But she is hard to predict: