Comcast got what it deserved

Comcast, the giant cable company, is one of the most reviled companies in America. It is notorious for its terrible and odious customer service. In addition to this infamous reputation, it sought to become ever-bigger and more powerful. Not satisfied with its dominance and near-monopolistic position, it sought to buy Time Warner Cable and become ever more dominant and unmistakably a true monopoly in cable and broadband.

To accomplish this goal, it hired legions of lobbyists and public relations flacks. Early on, it looked like it had the clout to win. President Obama made more than one visit to Comcast Vice President David Cohen's home to attend fundraisers. Even more stunning and blatant, the chairman and CEO of the company (and co-founder's son), Brian Roberts, golfed with Obama on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Talk about being well-connected!


But it was all for naught. Last Friday, Comcast saw that its ambitious gig was doomed and threw in its cards. The company announced that it was terminating the effort. The general consensus was that Comcast had overplayed its hand. But even more apparent and well-known is that the company is renowned for being a corporate bully. I know this from personal experience.

For nearly 10 years, I was the political analyst and commentator for WTOP radio in Washington. This station is the most-listened-to station in the capital area. The all-news station is a place for members of Congress and officials of government agencies to tune in and get their daily dose of information.

I did a series of commentaries blasting Comcast for its devious billing practices. The essence of my criticism was that customers in the D.C. area (including parts of Maryland and Virginia) were receiving bills that made it look like they had to pay their charges two or three days after they received the bill. In fact, they had 45 days, but you had to turn the bill upside down and find the small print to discover that fact. Obviously, Comcast was not pleased with my views.

To demonstrate their displeasure, Comcast canceled $500,000 worth of advertising on WTOP. A member of management said to me: "I think you should know that Comcast has withdrawn $500,000 in advertising and I would appreciate it if you would stop." I did not. When Comcast is not using the stick, it employs the carrot. Just last week, there were reports of Cohen handing out free laptops to impoverished students in Brooklyn, N.Y. I wonder if this practice will now continue.

Credit should be paid to two agencies of the federal government that showed their independence and integrity. The antitrust division of the Justice Department and the appropriate regulatory agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They were going to put Comcast through a series of hearings, which signaled to them that the proposed deal was in deep trouble and ultimately would not be approved.

Big kudos should go to the chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler. Earlier, he had pushed for a ruling on net neutrality, which set the stage for the Comcast decision. Both the antitrust division of Justice and the independent regulatory agency, the FCC, were simply doing their jobs and fulfilling their charge and mission.

They are to be commended and congratulated and thanked. Wheeler in particular showed that he fully realized his obligation to serve the public interest. He was a former head of the cable TV lobbying organization, but that obviously had no effect on him. The entire episode showed that, in this case, big money and big influence did not carry the day.

Comcast executives probably thought that they were "too big to fail." They were wrong. Consumers and American citizens were protected. That's the way it should be. One final thank-you should go to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). He was the very first senator to say that this was a bad deal. To Franken, this was no laughing matter.

Editor's note: The Hill has decided not to name the member of WTOP management to whom Plotkin referred above. We did contact WTOP and were told that a "pause" in advertising by Comcast did occur, but a member of WTOP management at the time of Plotkin's employment strongly denies that Plotkin was ever asked to stop his criticism of Comcast as a result.

A typographical error in this piece has been corrected.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.