If you believe the talk out of Washington -- and certainly from Comcast and its supporters -- the cable giant's proposed merger with Time Warner Cable has the "air of inevitability."
But if the Senate Judiciary Committee does its job on Wednesday, that dangerous perception won't become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The committee will hold the first public hearing on the proposed merger of the nation's two largest cable companies since they announced the deal in February, offering senators a chance to poke holes in the supposed benefits of the deal and derail its approval.
That shouldn't be hard for them to do. They need to keep in mind only one thing -- how the merger would impact the public interest.
"Public interest" is the standard the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the cable industry, is required to use to evaluate deals. Comcast and Time Warner have the burden of proof to show how the public will benefit if they merge. To say that will be tough is an understatement.
"It's difficult to see in what universe this deal is in the public interest," said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of "Captive Audience," which examines how the giant telecommunications firms have constrained innovation and competition.
The two companies attempted to answer the public interest question in a regulatory filing on Tuesday, where they said the merger would put them in a better position to invest in their networks to provide faster broadband speeds, more reliable service and innovative new technologies to customers. And the merger would do no harm, they said, because the companies don't compete head-to-head in any of their markets.
But it's clear the public isn't buying that argument. A survey last month by Reuters/Ipsos indicated that 52 percent of Americans believe that mergers like that between Comcast and Time Warner result in less competition and are bad for consumers. And consumer advocates on Wednesday plan to present petitions to the committee with signatures from some 400,000 Americans who oppose to the deal.
The public skepticism -- which ought to weigh heavily on regulators minds as they evaluate the deal -- is easy to explain.
Comcast officials have already said the deal won't address consumers' biggest concern -- the steep and ever-rising price of cable bills. Even though the companies expect to see lower costs as a result of the merger, they don't intend to pass those savings on to customers.
"If they've already said prices aren't going to go down, why is this a good idea?" said Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group.
It's also not clear how a combined and more powerful company would provide better customer service. The Consumerist, an online magazine affiliated with Consumer Reports, just awarded Comcast with a "Golden Poo" for being the worst company in America. Time Warner Cable ranked in the bottom eight in the competition.
And there are reasons to worry about how the combined companies might affect what consumers can watch on TV or do on the Internet. Consumers have seen in the past how disputes between their pay TV providers and cable networks can lead to certain channels being unavailable. A more powerful cable company would almost certainly attempt to pressure TV channels for better deals, likely leading to more disputes at the expense of customers.
Internet users are already seeing similar problems. Netflix customers on Comcast recently saw a downgrade in the quality of the videos they streamed from their service; to resolve the problem, Netflix had to pay Comcast to upgrade their interconnections.
"The added heft that the additional Time Warner subscribers give Comcast will give Comcast the ability to squeeze every other part of the ecosystem -- programmers, box manufacturers, online applications, manufacturers of equipment, everybody," said Crawford. "In the end, that adds up to higher costs for consumers as competition in all these markets diminishes."
The Judiciary Committee doesn't have direct authority to block the deal. But by voicing skepticism, committee members could put pressure on the agencies who do have that power -- the FCC and the Department of Justice -- to stop it in its tracks.
Let's hope the committee keeps us, the public, in mind. Because it's high time this deal -- and the notion of its inevitability -- was derailed.