By Diane Bartz
WASHINGTON, April 8 (Reuters) - Executives from Veria Living, a U.S. cable television channel, met in March with Justice Department officials who are digging into the Comcast deal to buy Time Warner Cable, even before the government was formally notified of the proposed transaction, Veria's CEO told Reuters.
Veria chief Eric Sherman said he and other company executives met with nine Justice Department antitrust attorneys, including two trial attorneys, on March 10 for nearly 90 minutes after Veria contacted the department.
Comcast Corp said in February that it planned to buy Time Warner Cable Inc for $45.2 billion, and formally requested antitrust approval on March 31.
Sherman told Reuters that the Justice Department attorneys asked about obstacles that small independent channels like Veria Living might face in getting picked up by cable giants like Comcast or Time Warner Cable.
That line of questioning suggests one of the elements that the U.S. government could focus on as it considers the potential implications of the merger.
The Federal Communications Commission will examine whether the deal is in the public interest while the Justice Department will determine whether it complies with antitrust law.
Smaller channels worry that since Comcast also owns NBC Universal, which has its own rich trove of movies and television shows, they will have little chance of being added to a cable network's lineup.
That situation will become worse if Time Warner Cable becomes part of Comcast, some small channels have said.
The problem of content providers was also an issue when the government approved Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal in 2011. As part of that approval, Comcast pledged to provide 10 new independent channels. It has added five so far.
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said that the company was proud of its relationship with independent programmers.
"Channel carriage has costs both in direct and indirect ways which must be balanced for our consumers. We continue to work to carry a wide variety of channels that our customers most want in a balanced way," Fitzmaurice said in a statement.
Veria, which focuses on health and wellness programming, is carried by DISH Network, FiOS, RCN and others but not by Comcast or Time Warner Cable.
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen and Time Warner Cable's finance chief, Arthur Minson, are among those scheduled to testify about the deal on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jonathan Oatis)