Five predictions to watch when a new Comcast/NBC emerges

The biggest questions in sports media these days revolve around Comcast’s acquisition of NBC.

We still don’t know much about what a Comcast-owned NBC will look like. We do know Comcast’s Steve Burke will be in charge and that NBC’s chief executive, Jeff Zucker, will report to him. Everything gets murky after that.

That uncertainty is causing anxiety inside the Comcast and NBC offices. One Comcast-er said that it was almost impossible to jockey for position in the new company since employees don’t know which executive they need to impress, because they don’t know who will run what.

Or when, as nobody knows when the two companies officially will become one.

Most believe regulatory approval will come in the first quarter of 2011, but an experienced D.C. lobbyist recently told me that he wouldn’t be surprised if the regulatory review process is pushed into the second quarter. Another D.C. veteran is convinced that regulatory approval will happen this year.

It seems that everybody is speculating about what a new Comcast/NBC company will look like — but not on the record. After talking with several executives, I believe there are five moves that are almost certain to happen once the deal gets approved.

1. Dick Ebersol will run Comcast’s new sports division.

Ebersol has been the clear favorite to run the sports division since the merger first was announced last December. While I don’t think he’ll oversee Comcast’s regional sports networks, I expect Ebersol to become the public face for Versus, Golf Channel, Universal Sports and NBC Sports. Comcast will rely on Ebersol’s reputation for producing high-quality events as it tries to pick off media rights for its channels. Ebersol’s presence will comfort some leagues that have been reluctant to deal with Comcast; several NFL sources have told me that the league passed on selling Versus rights to an eight-game package in 2005 because of concerns over how Versus would produce programming. Under Ebersol, those concerns go away.

Ebersol also has stronger relationships and deeper contacts with every league than anyone at Comcast. If Comcast wants to grow its sports business, keeping Ebersol is a no-brainer.

2. Comcast will target the Olympics, NHL and Pac-10 rights.

Look for Dick Ebersol to run
Comcast’s sports division, but
don’t look for the Versus brand
to survive.

The International Olympic Committee postponed bids for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics until next year, after Comcast’s acquisition of NBC gains approval. The NHL and Pac-10 also will be putting their media rights to bid next year. Plus, the NFL is talking about expanding its regular-season schedule, a move that could create a new TV package on which Comcast could bid. These leagues are expecting Comcast-NBC to become a deep-pocketed competitor that will challenge ESPN for sports rights. That’s not going to happen right away, but Comcast will be aggressive about picking up rights as they come up.

Its top priority would have to be retaining the Olympics. NBC has held the Olympics rights for more than two decades, and much of Ebersol’s reputation is intertwined with how he has produced them. Comcast does not want its first meaningful sports deal as NBC’s owner to be losing NBC’s most marquee property.

3. RSNs and O&Os get grouped together.

The most profitable part of Comcast’s sports empire, the regional sports networks, will not fall under Ebersol’s control. Rather, I expect Comcast to group its RSNs with NBC’s owned-and-operated local stations. RSNs can share more resources and programming with local stations than with national sports networks.

To get an idea of Comcast’s thinking, look what the company is doing in Boston, where it essentially has merged CSN New England with New England Cable News. The two channels share resources and talent, and NECN’s sports reports are produced by CSN and staffed by CSN talent.

Soon after the deal gets approval — and whenever office leases expire — I expect Comcast’s RSNs in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose and Washington to physically merge with the NBC owned-and-operated stations in those markets. This is probably where you’ll see the highest staff turnover: You don’t need two HR departments to staff a merged operation, for example.

4. Comcast will launch a new RSN in Houston.

I first wrote about this deal six months ago, and still nothing has been announced. That doesn’t mean Comcast’s deal to pick up the MLB Astros’ and NBA Rockets’ rights is falling apart. On the contrary, the competitors for these rights — Fox Sports Net, DirecTV and AT&T — all have moved on. So what’s the holdup? I suspect that Comcast and the Houston teams are waiting until Comcast’s NBC acquisition gets regulatory approval before they formally sign the deal. The deal follows Comcast’s template, where it gives up an equity interest to secure long-term rights. In this case, the Astros and Rockets are getting up to an 80 percent stake in the channel, which will start with the Rockets’ 2012-13 season.

This move shows that even with the NBC acquisition, Comcast plans to continue expanding its RSN business.

5. The Versus brand gets killed.

NBC Sports is a stronger brand than Versus, which is why Comcast, in the first couple of months after regulatory approval, will rename Versus to something like the NBC Sports Channel or NBC Sports Network. Golf Channel and Universal Sports will not be renamed. For Comcast, a national cable network that shares a name with a broadcast network will help the two share programming and talent.

I expect the new NBC Sports Channel to carry one or two Notre Dame football games each season. I can see it telecast early round coverage of NBC’s PGA Tour golf events (like The Players Championship) rather than Golf Channel. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see on-air talent working across all the channels as Comcast tries to set up the ESPN competitor that leagues have been seeking for the past several years.

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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