Comcast is raising the cost of watching television, again. But don't despair. Many of our elected leaders assure us that Comcast has our best interest at heart.
Comcast already is the nation's largest cable television provider and a major Internet provider. With the help of those politicians, the Philadelphia-based company is on the verge of becoming much bigger. The company is fighting to complete a $30 billion merger with NBC and Universal, the network and studio owned by General Electric Co.
The Federal Communications Commission, which must approve the merger, is expected to act soon. To win regulatory approval, Comcast is leaning on friends the company has cultivated and helped finance. Friends include Gov. Schwarzenegger, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, legislators and many of the nation's leading advocacy organizations.
All obliged when Comcast requested that they write letters attesting to the wisdom of the deal, Comcast's philanthropic nature and how the merger will help the economy.
"Comcast has made clear that this venture is not about cutting jobs, but about growing NBCU's businesses," Schwarzenegger said in a letter, signed by Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Gov. David Paterson of New York.
Regulatory approval seems certain. But regulators can impose restrictions. Those restrictions matter. Without conditions, a combined Comcast-NBC-Universal could limit consumer choices, more easily raise prices, elbow out competition and exert added control over people who create the programming.
"Comcast has done an excellent job buying up support," Susan Crawford, a professor at New York's Cardoza Law School, said. "But all of this is completely irrelevant to whether the merger is in the public interest."
Crawford, who is writing a book about the merger, estimates Comcast is employing 80 former government officials and is spending perhaps $30 million lobbying to win approval of the transaction. "No one has ever seen a lobbying operation like what Comcast has put in place," Crawford said.
As it is, Comcast provides cable to almost one in four households, and 23 million customers. It's the dominant cable company in Northern California.
Americans watch an average of 35.5 hours of television a week, paying more than $100 a month on average. Some programming like sports and 24-hour news is addictive, Crawford notes. Some of it is dreck.
One Comcast subsidiary's lineup once featured a show called "Hurl." The plot of one episode: Eat 11 pounds of macaroni and cheese, go on a carnival ride, see what emanates. Its offerings include a "science" show that answers which is more dangerous, a "speeding bullet or a flying chicken."
Al Franken, the Democratic senator from Minnesota who used to appear on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," sees nothing funny about the merger. In an 11-page letter, Franken told the FCC: "Approval of this deal as it currently stands poses a grave threat to the public interest, threatening to set off a dangerous trend of further media consolidation, create even higher prices for consumers and risk job loss in an already fragile economy."
Comcast and General Electric have many friends. The companies have contributed $2.8 million to California campaigns since 2005, including $721,000 to Schwarzenegger's political accounts. His spokesman said the donations have nothing to do with the governor's stand.
In June, Comcast gave $25,000 to the California Democratic Party. A few days later, two Southern California Democrats signed letters urging approval of the merger.
In a statement, Comcast Senior Vice President Joe Waz said: "Many public officials told us they support this transaction, and we asked them if they would be willing to put that on the record with the FCC -- and obviously they have done so.
"And of course we work every day with so many local organizations who have been more than glad to tell the FCC how they feel about us from firsthand experience."
Through its foundation, Comcast helped fund many organizations now giving favorable reviews. Some of those groups purport to represent people who can least afford Comcast's rate hikes.
Once the merger is approved and its position is solidified, look for Comcast to redouble efforts to elbow the competition. Comcast lobbyists contend that satellite television companies have an unfair pricing advantage. The state levies no taxes on satellites, but cable companies must pay franchise fees. The solution: Tax satellite companies. There are efforts to impose such taxes in at least 10 states, California included.
THE SACRAMENTO BEE