Al Franken, trustbuster?

Getty Images

Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) battle against consolidation in the media and communications industries is quickly becoming his signature issue.

ADVERTISEMENT
While the senator keeps a low profile in Washington and generally avoids the press, he’s become a visible and vocal force when it comes to merger deals like the one now being proposed by Comcast.

He opposed the company’s 2011 purchase of NBC, where he worked for years as a performer and writer for Saturday Night Live, and is now waging a one-man crusade against Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable in hearings, letters and television appearances.

Franken argues the combination of the nation’s two largest cable companies would be harmful to consumers and give more market share to a company with a poor reputation on customer service.

 “I’ve heard from consumers who are worried that this deal will result in higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse service — and it’s important to me that their voices be heard,” Franken said in a statement to The Hill, pointing to his past experience challenging mergers between telecom giants. 

“That’s why I oppose this deal, and it’s also why I actively opposed AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile and Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal.”   

Appearing on CNN over the weekend, Franken called the proposed merger “a disaster.”

"This is the No. 1 cable TV company buying the No. 2. And this is the No. 1 Internet broadband company buying the No. 3,” he said, echoing the concerns he expressed earlier this year to the Obama administration when asked regulators to block the merger.

And during a recent segment of C-SPAN’s “The Communicators,” Franken said more than 100,000 of his constituents responded to his call for input with complaints about Comcast service.

Comcast has “107 of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, … but I had more than 100,000 people write me [with] their objections,” he said.

Opponents of the merger say the senator’s channeling of old-time “trust buster” politics has bolstered their cause.

“I think his vocal and continuous opposition has been important,” said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press.

Ultimately, approval of the deal will be up to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), but opposition from lawmakers can often sway their thinking.

“Having people stand up … and question it openly and early, I think is important for setting that frame for the agencies that actually do have power over it,” Wood said.

Franken has tangled with Comcast before. Three years ago, he told regulators that a Comcast purchase of NBC Universal would “fail to promote competition, diversity or localism, instead wreaking havoc on those very values.”

He asked the FCC to consider the precedence it would set by allowing the vertical integration, pointing to a future where Internet providers own movie and television studios.

“The question is whether we'd be all be better off for it,” he wrote. “The answer, in my mind, is clear: we would not.”

That merger ultimately went through, and Franken has pledged to continue the fight against media consolidation in the Senate.

In filings with the administration and in testimony to Congress, Comcast has argued that its merger with Time Warner Cable would allow it to better compete with AT&T and Verizon and would expand to commitments it made to treating Internet traffic equally when it purchased NBC Universal in 2011.

“I think consumers are the big winners in this transaction,” Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said during last week's Senate hearing.

Cohen said the deal would give Comcast “the scale and reach to innovate and compete against our national and global competitors" and lead to “more investment, faster speeds, better technology, more Americans connected.”

Opponents of the deal argue otherwise, and say Franken’s unique experience as a former comedian and NBC employee gives his opposition added credibility.

“You can’t dismiss the fact that he actually worked with large companies like Comcast,” said Matthew Polka, CEO of the American Cable Association.

“He happens to be a senator with experience dealing with NBC.”

Polka’s group — which represents small cable companies — opposes the Comcast, Time Warner Cable merger.

While Comcast argues that it can improve its services if it is allowed to grow, “Franken knows from experience that bigger does not translate to better for consumers,” Polka said.

Though Franken has mostly stood alone on his explicit calls to block the Comcast deal, other senators expressed skepticism of the merger during a hearing last week.

The House Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing on the merger early next month, and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) has launched an online petition urging the Justice Department to block the merger.

“We may see more folks over there starting to ask questions,” Wood said of the House.