We've seen this cable show before

Comcast's David Cohen told senators: "Consumers ... are in the driver's seat."
Comcast's David Cohen told senators: "Consumers ... are in the driver's seat." (Bloomberg)
Posted: April 15, 2014

It's Comcast's world. We just pay for it.

Executives from the Philadelphia-based cable and Internet behemoth traveled to Capitol Hill to plead their case for a $45.2 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, part of its inexorable march toward complete domination of American viewers.

"There is nothing in this transaction that will make anyone's bills go up," said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, so polished and unflappable during the three-hour Senate Judiciary hearing that he should be nicknamed DC Smooth. "Consumers today are in the driver's seat," he noted, adding that "consumers will be big winners in this transaction."

I sincerely hope you did not read the preceding paragraph while drinking a hot beverage.

Cable bills, unlike most incomes, only increase. My household forks over a Lannister-like fortune to follow HBO's Game of Thrones. Comcast's revenue motto might be "to Xfinity and beyond."

Former Justice Department official Gene Kimmelman, now with the advocacy group Public Knowledge, appeared before the committee and likened the deal to "almost like a nationwide octopus with tentacles, each able to squeeze off innovation." He said the merger would grant Comcast "undue power."

Arguably, a company employing more than 100 lobbyists that has had virtually all its deals granted government approval is already there.

Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) was not buying Cohen's sell. "I believe this deal will result in fewer choices, higher prices, and even worse service for my constituents," he said, a reality customers did not think possible. Franken is the only committee member to openly oppose the merger, though senators from both parties displayed a healthy skepticism that consumers would be the true benefactors.

There was a certain irony watching Franken, a longtime writer and performer on NBC's Saturday Night Live and the Senate's only official recovering comedian, grill Cohen about the sale. NBCUniversal is one of Comcast's holdings. Franken observed that, in seeking approval to acquire NBCUniversal a few years ago, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts cited "robust competition" with Time Warner Cable. Yet now, in the TWC acquisition, Comcast dismissed any competition between the companies because they dominate different geographic markets. Franken said, "You can't have it both ways."

I am sorry to report that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) spent most of his apportioned time complaining about personal experiences as a DirecTV consumer during bad weather, and directly questioned Cohen about switching to Comcast. I am not making this up.

Time Warner Cable executive vice president Arthur Minson barely spoke, perhaps not wishing to jeopardize the $27 million he will collect if the merger is approved after less than a year in the job. Chump change. CEO Rob Marcus stands to collect almost $80 million after only a few months in his position. Minson defended the payouts: "For transactions this complex, I would think you would find they are in line." Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) countered, "You may find not all consumers agree." If any.

Diplomatic and openly wooing opponents who appeared on the panel, Cohen admitted Comcast's "call services of excellence" - wherever they may be between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. - are not exactly Comcastic. Cohen said, "It bothers us that we have trouble delivering real high-quality service on a consistent basis."

While it wouldn't be wise to bet against Comcast, additional congressional hearings are scheduled, and the merger will be reviewed by both the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department. A coalition of advocacy groups collected the names of 400,000 consumers urging regulators to reject the deal.

"Comcast is big. It is good" at courting Washington, said Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge. "But it is not perfect." Since the merger's announcement, Comcast has "gotten a lot more pushback than anticipated."

The company's playbook is "basically arguments for Comcast to be the only cable operator in America," Weisberg said. "They may be victims of their own success."

Comcast has far more consumers than it has fans, customers who feel they are anywhere but in the driver's seat or big winners now, let alone if this deal is approved.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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