His son, Brian Roberts, currently serves as chairman and chief executive, having joined the company in 1981, fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. Roberts, fifty-one, has served as chief executive since November 2002 and chairman since May 2004 and is credited with building a mid-tier cable company into the titan it is today. Shares of the Fortune 100 company trade publicly, but Roberts owns a third of the company’s voting stock, giving him by far the most control of any investor.

Roberts runs the Comcast empire from a sleek, glass-sheathed tower in downtown Philadelphia. In published profiles he is described as a polished and low-key dealmaker who is also a relentless, hard-ball negotiator, adept at sidestepping the spotlight. He has said NBC’s The Office is one of his favorite TV shows.

An accomplished squash player, triathlete, and father of three, Roberts is active in Philadelphia philanthropy. He was paid more than $27 million in total compensation in 2009, ranking him forty-seventh on Forbes’s list of executive pay.

If he seals this deal, Roberts will step beyond the cable guys and into the flashier world of media titans.

Too Much Control?

Comcast’s proposed deal unfolds in three stages. First, it calls for General Electric Company to buy the 20 percent of NBC Universal it doesn’t already own. Comcast would then pay GE $6.5 billion for a 51 percent stake in a new joint venture containing NBC Universal and Comcast’s cable networks and online properties. GE has an option to sell its stake in the venture to Comcast within seven years, giving Roberts 100 percent control.

Consumer advocates say the deal is bad because it will make it harder for new competitors to challenge cable and satellite television providers. Mark Cooper, research director at the Consumer Federation of America, told Congress in February that the cable industry is a “cartel” that will be “strengthened and extended to the Internet” if the merger is approved.

The merged company “touches every part of the media landscape,” said Crawford, the former Obama adviser who questions the deal. If the deal is approved, Comcast will own the NBC affiliate and the dominant cable system in cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Hartford, and San Jose. Owning a cable system and broadcast station in the same market was once against the rules, but such restrictions were abolished by a federal court ruling in 2001.

In addition to its broadcast and cable networks, NBC has 234 affiliated television stations that cover the nation. There’s also Universal Pictures, theme parks, and fifteen owned-and-operated Telemundo Spanish-language stations.

Just as important as its distribution breadth, Comcast would be a heavyweight programmer, influencing what shows would be made available to online competitors. Merger opponents say it could not only withhold its programming, but also urge independent programmers to refuse to do business with Internet upstarts. Comcast paid more than $7 billion in 2009 for programming, a substantial sum that content providers would hate to jeopardize for fear of drawing Comcast’s ire by selling programs to places Comcast doesn’t like.

Indeed, some see NBC Universal’s 27 percent ownership in Hulu as problematic. The concern is that Comcast will look at Hulu as a competitor for its television distribution business and pull NBC Universal programming off it.

Comcast’s Fitzmaurice says the company’s market power is overstated.

Comcast controls less than one quarter of national pay-TV market—one in three pay-television customers today is a satellite subscriber. “Our share is declining,” she said. As for the Internet, Fitzmaurice said Comcast reaches less than 20 percent of the national broadband market. In programming, the combined company will control only 13 percent of the content market, trailing Disney, Viacom, and News Corp.

As to the Hulu stake, she said the deal “does not change NBCU’s participation” in any way. That doesn’t mean that all NBC Universal shows will be available on the Internet, however, due to uncertainty about whether online advertising alone can support the “creative infrastructure” needed to produce premium content.

John Dunbar , a former reporter for The Associated Press and The Center for Public Integrity, is director of "The Media and Broadband Project," part of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C. This story is a joint project of CJR and the Workshop, and was jointly published. Workshop researcher Mia Steinle and graduate assistant Allison Terry contributed to this report.