Comcast coupling

STU BYKOFSKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF Comcast security director Joe Clancy accepts anti-merger petitions from Free Press' Mary Alice Crim on Wednesday.
STU BYKOFSKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF Comcast security director Joe Clancy accepts anti-merger petitions from Free Press' Mary Alice Crim on Wednesday.
Posted: May 23, 2014

CONSUMERS UNION hates Kabletown, thinks it's too big already and wants it to grow no more.

Nonprofit Consumers Union says it works to make for a "fair, just and safe marketplace for all consumers."

Kabletown is what Comcast was called on Tina Fey's brilliant "30 Rock," the title being shorthand for the headquarters of NBC Universal, which Comcast bought from GE. Yes, Philadelphia's Comcast.

Wednesday morning, when Comcast held its annual shareholders meeting at the Kimmel Center, Consumers Union and other big-is-bad groups planned to crash it to protest Comcast's proposal to swallow Time Warner. The Mega-Merger, critics call it.

Before examining that issue, some bad-luck timing that even Fey wouldn't have dared dream up: The day before the shareholders meeting, the American Customer Satisfaction Index released a report saying the two cable companies finished last and next to last in Internet service, subscription TV and fixed-line telephone service.

Who was dead last?

Time Warner. (Comcast CEO Brian Roberts may have heaved a sigh of relief. "Yessss. We're only No. 2," he did not say.)

What he did say to shareholders was that Comcast's "No. 1 priority" was to "improve the customer experience."

[Disclaimer: I am a Comcast customer and my "experience" has improved in recent years.]

But it wasn't the "experience" that drew protesters to the sidewalk outside the Kimmel. It was the proposed merger of the Comcast leviathan with the Time Warner whale.

Inside, Roberts said the merger represents a "significant opportunity for corporate efficiencies and revenue growth." Comcast's revenue in 2013 increased 5.8 percent over the previous year to $64.7 billion. That exceeds the combined GNP of Panama and Afghanistan.

Outside, protesters held "I Vote No" posters and told me the merger was a significant opportunity for Comcast to stifle competition and raise prices.

They made it sound like a bad thing.

There were maybe 80 Comcast shareholders inside (including Comcast employees and directors) and almost as many protesters outside.

One was Hannah Sassaman, who described herself as a homeowner, "raising a young daughter with my partner," someone for whom "affordable Internet" is important.

"Philadelphia should be the gem in the Comcast crown," she said, but in Philadelphia "only 9 percent of families eligible for Internet Essentials get it, compared with 12 percent as the national average."

A Comcast spokesman said the figures were actually 9.2 percent in Philadelphia and 11.5 nationally, and the low local enrollment was due to turmoil within the school district, which Comcast uses to reach low-income residents to offer basic cable at $9.95 a month. More than 9,000 local families are enrolled.

Is the proposed merger - which must clear FCC and Department of Justice scrutiny - good or bad? Surely good for Comcast, which now has 22 percent of the American cable market and post-merger would have about 30 percent, company spokesman John Demming told me.

Rather than crash the meeting, protesters were escorted inside, where Mary Alice Crim of the nonpartisan Free Press presented anti-merger petitions to Comcast security director Joe Clancy.

I didn't sign the petition, but I believe a merger inevitably will bring higher costs. That's the downside for consumers.

For Comcast, the downside of no merger is less profit.

Being as it's already as big as Panama and Afghanistan, I can live with that.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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