​Al Franken’s crusade to stop Comcast and save media

The US senator says his past as a comedian and writer gives him plenty of reasons to mistrust big media companies.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
8 min read

Sen. Al Franken speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. Alex Wong, Getty Images

Most consumers are not fond of their cable companies, but comedian turned US Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, really doesn't like Comcast.

Since winning his Senate seat in 2008 in what turned out to be one of the closest elections in Senate history, the former "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer, who in his previous profession rarely shied away from stinging political satire, has kept a relatively low profile in his new job. But two issues that have gotten the senator fired up are big corporate mergers and Net neutrality.

These passions have led the first-term senator to face off with Comcast, the nation's largest cable company -- not just once but now twice. He was one of the strongest opponents against the Comcast-NBC Universal merger, which regulators approved in 2011. And he is one of the only lawmakers on Capitol Hill speaking out against Comcast's $45 billion bid to gobble up Time Warner Cable.

Franken's strong position against consolidation of the media market stems from his days as a writer and performer when he says he witnessed leaders of the major broadcast television markets manipulate Congress to rescind the so-called Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, or fin-syn rules, which were established by the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1970s to prevent the big three television networks from monopolizing the broadcast landscape by prohibiting them from owning any of the programming that they aired in prime-time.

The rules were established to prevent networks from demanding profit participation in shows that aired on their networks. Producers that refused to give the networks a cut, never got their shows aired.

Starting in the 1980s, broadcasters began lobbying Congress and the FCC to relax the rules. After a decade and a half of chipping away at the foundation of these rules, they were finally rescinded entirely by the FCC in 1995. Franken has argued that this became the death of independently produced TV shows.

It seems to be this experience that has helped shape his stance as a senator and has driven his passion to stand up against both of Comcast's big mergers, as well as champion the issue of Net neutrality. From his earliest days in politics, Franken has been a big supporter of the open Internet.

Recently, he's been an outspoken critic of both President Obama and the current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for not doing enough to ensure that the open Internet rules get reinstated to provide even stronger protection for Internet freedom. The rules, which had been adopted in 2010 by the FCC, were struck down in court in January on a legal technicality. In fact, in a video distributed by liberal political action group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, he calls Net neutrality "the free speech issue of our time."

CNET interviewed Sen. Franken by phone from his office in Washington, DC, this week. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: You're pretty much the lone voice on Capitol Hill opposing the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger right now. Why is this an important issue for you?

Sen. Al Franken: This is about consolidation of media and what it means to allow any entity to have so much power in a space. Comcast is already the biggest Internet and cable TV provider. And they want to buy the second biggest, Time Warner Cable. That means it's going to be too big a company. They have told Wall Street that this is a benefit of the merger. They want to leverage this strength as the largest provider of these services. And as a result, Minnesotans and other Americans will pay more for cable and Internet.

But what about the fact that these broadband providers don't overlap in terms of subscribership in any market? So in the true sense, there's no real antitrust violation.

Franken: That's not the point. First of all, the fact that they have monopolies in their own markets should say something. Together they will become one big monopoly and have a huge presence. So I don't think we should feel better about the fact that they'll just be getting bigger. Combined the companies will exert even more power. Time Warner Cable has acted as a counterweight to Comcast in the market.

How is Time Warner Cable a counterweight to Comcast? Do you mean in terms of being able to compete for content?

Franken: Yes, by having purchasing power and also buying content they act as a counterweight to Comcast. Time Warner Cable is keeping Comcast honest. Just ask (Comcast CEO) Brian Roberts about this. He made this point in the 2010 hearings when Comcast was buying NBC Universal. He said the fact that Comcast competes for content is the reason why it was OK for them to buy a content company like NBC Universal. They said if they did anything funny, their competitors would run to the FCC. And they named Time Warner Cable as a competitor. They even said during that hearing that it wasn't like they were trying to expand their distribution. Well, that's exactly what they're doing now.

Why do you think no one else is standing up against this merger if you're so certain it's bad for the public interest?

Franken: I'm not quite sure. This is something that I've paid a lot of attention to. And I guess everybody is sort of drinking from the firehose and not everyone has chosen to make this an issue they should know about or one that they should look at closely. That might have something do with it. But there are plenty of colleagues who are skeptical.

That kind of leaves you out there all by yourself then, doesn't it?

Franken: I am left out by myself a little bit right now in terms of Congress. But I anticipate I'll get people joining me. And there are many other people who are against this merger. I'm not the only one. I've also heard from constituents who aren't happy about this merger. I sent out an email asking about this issue and received 100,000 responses. That's pretty unusual to get that level of response.

Congress doesn't really have a say in whether this merger happens or not. It's up to the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission to approve or reject it. So what do you think your opposition will accomplish?

Franken: I am hoping by virtue of the questions that are asked and the answers given that become part of the record that we can make the argument for why this is not in the public interest.

So in other words, you hope that by asking those questions and getting the answers, you'll be able to influence the decision of the FCC and the DOJ?

Franken: Yes, the hope is that this influences their decisions. And we, of course submit letters, and have these discussions so they are part of the record.

How does your background in television affect your stance on this issue?

Franken: I remember when "Fin-Syn," ("Financial Interest in Syndication") rules were rescinded (in the 1990s.) When the networks were testifying in the hearings about that they said, 'Why would we only pick our own programming? We want to get good ratings. We'd never choose our own programming over something that we didn't have a stake in because we need the ratings.' When the rules were rescinded they did exactly that. And it killed independent production. More of the programming developed was done in-house.

You are speaking from personal experience when you talk about how this affected the industry, correct? I read in a recent New York Times profile of you that you were unhappy with how NBC treated a sitcom you developed in the late 1990s called "LateLine." Right?

Franken: I'm not going to claim my show would have been a hit. But NBC had asked Paramount (which owned and produced the show) for a piece of it. When they said no, we didn't get a good time slot. Do you remember all the shows that NBC put on after "Seinfeld?" Those slots all went to shows that had some NBC participation. They were given a chance to be a hit. NBC put on one thing after another and none of them became hits.

How does all this history fit into the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal?

Franken: I don't trust the testimony these executives give. In my experience, they say one thing and the day after they get what they want, they do the opposite. That's what happened with Fin-Syn. Once it was rescinded they all went out and said they wanted to own their own programs, which was opposite from what they said in the hearings.

Is this skepticism purely because Comcast is a media company or are you skeptical of what any big company involved in a merger would say?

Franken: I'm skeptical of any big company. They will make their case in front of Congress because that's their job. And once they get what they want, they'll turn around and do what they just promised they would never do. They are out to make as much money for their stockholders as they can. That's what they tell their investors and stockholders. And I definitely believe them when they say that.

I know you recently appeared in a video for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's NoSlowLane.com campaign, which opposes the FCC's proposal to reinstate open Internet rules. Do you feel that President Obama has not lived up to his word in terms of protecting Net neutrality?

Franken: He was pretty clear during the campaign in 2008 that he was a champion of Net neutrality. And then he appointed a chairman who is antithetical to that.

Do you really think FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler doesn't support an open Internet? He says he does. And he has tried to clarify the proposal, which hasn't been made public yet, several times since some of the details were made public. You still don't trust he will protect Net neutrality?

Franken: It sounds like he is talking about allowing broadband providers to offer a fast lane on the Internet. And he's talked about the FCC deciding what is considered commercially reasonable when it comes to these deals. I don't know how you distinguish between what's commercially reasonable versus just allowing people who can afford to pay for priority access to get it and those who can't cannot. That will stifle innovation. And that's what we should prevent.

It sounds like you strongly feel this is the wrong approach the FCC should be taking. What approach should it take?

Franken: I think there is an easy solution for the FCC: It's called reclassify to common carrier. It's pretty simple. That is the easiest and simplest solution. I don't think one decision in 2002 should dictate how the entire Internet works and is administered by one guy. I just don't.