WASHINGTON — Arguing that a merged Comcast and Time Warner would be bad for competition and the general public, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken told executives from both companies he is against their merger on Wednesday.
Franken’s unease with the proposed deal has been well-documented, but he had his first chance to directly question company officials about the merger on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Comcast has said the deal won’t hurt consumers or competition because there is no overlap between the two companies’ current markets. But Franken argued a combined company would be large enough to wield too much control over the cable and broadband Internet markets across the country.
“These two companies, each of which controls more of their own local markets, want to become one larger company that controls the national market,” Franken said.
He harkened back to Comcast’s testimony before its takeover of NBC-Universal in 2010, when company executives argued cable distributors — including Time Warner — would prevent the company from anti-competitive pricing for television content.
“Comcast can’t have it both ways,” he said. “It can’t say the existence of competition among distributors, including Time Warner Cable, was a reason to approve the NBC deal in 2010, and then turn around a few years later and say the absence of competition with Time Warner Cable is a reason to approve this deal.”
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen told the committee a combined Comcast-Time Warner would be a boon for consumers, even as he said he couldn’t promise the deal would stop future price increases.
Acquiring Time Warner Cable, he told Senators at a hearing on the merger, will give more people Comcast’s better technology and faster internet, expand its program to help low-income families get broadband service and allow the company to innovate and compete.
“Comcast represents the American dream,” Cohen said. “If this transaction is approved, it will give us the scale and reach to innovate and compete against our national and global competitors.”
Cohen later faced a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) over his previous statements that bills would not go down and that increases may not even slow as a result of the Time Warner deal. Cohen said he was being honest – he can’t guarantee price drops –but that the deal would benefit customers.
“Whatever economic benefits are generated will ultimately inure to the benefit of consumers,” Cohen said. With so many options online and elsewhere, he said, consumers “are in the driver’s seat.”
“I think our investors want us to have the best multichannel video and broadband business in the country, and that includes getting whatever prices the market will bear, and it also includes providing an extraordinarily high-quality video and broadband experience,” Cohen told the committee.
Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar questioned executives and industry experts on the impact a combined Comcast-Time Warner might have on everything from prices for programming providers to broadband Internet access for video streaming services like Netflix.
“What will happen to the next Netflix that today is still just a dream in a garage?” Klobuchar asked. “We want to make sure that the next new and competitive online service will be able to get their content to the merged company’s growing consumer base.”
Klobuchar called cable television competition “one of the most important issues this committee faces” because “this issue literally touches people’s lives every day, and it touches people’s wallets every month.”
Franken has been perhaps the most vocal critic of the proposed merger in Congress, where he said Comcast has dispatched more than 100 lobbyists to make its case. He has sent a series of letters to regulators warning them about his concerns, and has taken his case to the public through national television interviews and a petition from his re-election campaign, which has yielded more than 100,000 signatures.
Halfway through the hearing, Cohen said complaints and concerns from Franken and other lawmakers “just spur us to improve the customer experience.”
To which Franken replied, “You’re welcome.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com.