Sen. Franken: Comcast can't have it both ways

Sen. Al Franken, publicly opposing Comcast's proposed $45.2 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, says the cable giant can't claim it competes with TWC to secure one deal and then say it doesn't compete with TWC to win another.

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Sen. Al Franken Getty Images
Sen. Al Franken criticized Comcast for an about-face to secure approval of big deals, saying the cable giant highlighted competition with Time Warner Cable to buy content company NBCUniversal but now claims its merger with TWC represents no competitive conflict.

"Comcast can't have it both ways. It can't say that 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 a later and say the absence of competition with Time Warner Cable is a reason to approve this deal," he said Wednesday at a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the proposed $45.2 billion merger between the country's No. 1 and 2 cable companies.

Franken (D-Minn.), the lone senator to state his outright opposition to the deal during the hearing, didn't provide the opportunity for Comcast's representative -- David Cohen -- to directly address that point.

But throughout the hearing, Cohen -- Comcast's executive vice president who handles the company's government and regulatory affairs -- rehashed arguments he laid out Tuesday about the deal's benefits for consumers and the absence of antitrust hurdles.

He reiterated Comcast's argument that the two cable companies do not directly compete in any market. He also addressed senators' concerns about the effect on cable bills that could arise from the country's two biggest cable providers getting even bigger.

"I will make my one firm commitment that there is absolutely nothing in this transaction that will result in an increase in prices for Comcast customers. Nothing," Cohen said. Meanwhile, he said multiple times he can't guarantee that rates will fall. He argued that the last decade's 98 percent increase in programming costs -- the money distributors pay to television companies to carry their networks -- while cable bills have risen at half that rate illustrates the current "balance of power," which this deal would help level.

Comcast stock was trading up 1.5 percent, or 73 cents, at $49.58. Time Warner stock was trading 1.2 percent higher, or $1.67, at $137.59.

Since Congress is largely toothless in the decision-making of this deal, Wednesday's hearing allowed politicians and interested parties to make the cues to the regulators that will ultimately decide the merger's fate. Most experts believe Comcast's deal will eventually be approved; the uncertainty around the deal is what conditions the Federal Communications Commission or Justice Department will impose on the cable giants to grant their approval.

Tuesday, the companies filed what's known as a joint application and public interest statement with the Federal Communications Commission, after last week filing a notification with the US Department of Justice, which will begin the antitrust review of the merger.

The deal has sparked strong opposition from some consumer groups and other critics, who say that a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would be too powerful. Comcast is the largest cable operator in the nation and Time Warner Cable is the second largest. But Comcast maintains that the two companies do not overlap directly in any market for broadband or video services, and their combination will strengthen consumers' service options.