Sen. Al Franken pinned Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and NBC executives in a public Senate hearing in 2010 and didn’t let the moment pass: “It’s really hard for me to trust you guys,” he told them.
In 2014, the Minnesota Democrat helped stoke the consumer backlash against Comcast’s proposed deal for Time Warner Cable. “There’s no doubt that Comcast is a huge, influential corporation, and I understand that there are over 100 lobbyists making the case for this deal to members of Congress and our staffs,” Franken told a packed hearing in April of that year. “But I’ve also heard from over 100,000 consumers who oppose this deal, and I think their voices need to be heard, too.”
Comcast abandoned Time Warner Cable a year later, after spending more than $400 million on lawyers and lobbyists.
Franken’s resignation Thursday removes Comcast’s biggest and loudest critic in the Senate even as the company is now stalking its latest target: acquiring part of 21st Century Fox Inc., which also would face antitrust regulatory reviews.
A former Saturday Night Live comic and member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Franken was brilliant at political theater and toxic to Comcast as he bashed media consolidation and blasted cable customer service. He was also a big supporter of net neutrality, which Comcast and other telecom firms have opposed and which faces a key vote before the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 14. This year, Franken questioned Apple Inc. about privacy and the face-recognition technology on its latest smartphones.
Comcast contended that Franken was grandstanding with his opposition to those mergers and connecting with his donor base. The company had no comment Thursday on Franken’s resignation.
The national and regional media fed off Franken’s anti-Comcast crusades, with the New York Times headlining a 2014 story, “Franken’s Campaign Against Comcast No Joke.” The Hill reported that Franken believed that Comcast-Time Warner Cable would be a “disaster” and was recruiting the on-demand streamer Netflix to oppose the deal. Netflix and satellite-TV operator Dish later filed documents at the FCC, backing Franken’s position.
In 2015, Roll Call highlighted Franken’s part in the deal’s demise, “In Comcast’s Failed Merger, a Victory for Franken.” And Time magazine piled on with “Senator Al Franken: Politicians Didn’t Stop Comcast-Time Warner Cable. You Did.”
In 2010, entertainment insiders viewed Franken’s dramatic encounter with Comcast and NBC executives in a Senate hearing over Comcast’s proposed NBCUniversal purchase as partly personal, with Franken still smarting over his exit from Saturday Night Live.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I was in show business, and for years, I worked for NBC,” Franken said in the packed hearing in February 2010. “I’m worried that this merger could set off another round of media consolidation.” But with the economy reeling from the Great Recession and NBC owner General Electric teetering financially, the Justice Department and the FCC agreed to Comcast-NBCUniversal but with conditions restricting Comcast’s economic power.