April 13th, 2014
02:00 PM ET

Sen. Franken: "I don't like this revolving door between regulators and Comcast" on CNN's Reliable Sources

Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources hosted by Brian Stelter, Sen. Al Franken (D-MI), member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, discussed the recent hearings on the potential Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger. Franken spoke about Comcast donations to lawmakers and how the merger would negatively impact consumers.

During the interview, Franken said to Stelter, “I don’t like this revolving door between regulators and Comcast.”

A transcript of the interview is available after the jump.

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED

STELTER: "I hate my cable company." You hear people say that all the time, right? Even cable companies admit customer service is a big problem.

So, here's a question: will the $45 billion plan for a mega merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable make that service any better? A lot of consumer groups say no. And they showed up on Wednesday on Capitol Hill to watch company executives face off against the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There were a lot of tough questions to ask about this proposed merger, so you might have expected a lot of fireworks at the hearing. It turns out not so much. It was actually quite a snooze. Why is that? Is that because of the vast sums of money Comcast spreads all over Washington?

It's a question I think you have to ask because Comcast is known as one of the biggest spenders in all of politics. It's got an army of lobbyists, more than 100 of them, registered here in D.C.

The company’s critics say it is way too cozy with government. For example, did you know that a former FCC commissioner is now a Comcast senior vice president? Or that Comcast CEO, Brian Roberts, played golf with President Obama last year? There are lots of examples like that that critics dig up.

So, we decided to look at, in this case, which senators on this committee got what from Comcast. And we found out that every one of the 18 members of the committee has gotten cash donations from Comcast at some point in the last decade, every one of them.

Like Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah. Here's what he said at the hearing about the possible merger.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: I know some of my friends here have never met a merger they liked. Too often, government intervention in such matters risks harming consumer welfare and innovation by protecting insufficient competitors from market forces.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Senator Hatch likes the deal and Comcast likes him, really likes him. Over the past decade, he received more money than any other Republican senator on the committee from Comcast, that's $45,000.

Let's be clear, of course - we have no evidence that those donations influenced his thinking on this matter. Comcast likes Democrats a lot, too. Senator Dick Durbin got even more money than Senator Hatch did, the most of any senator on the committee - $54,000 over the last decade. But he wasn't at the hearing on Wednesday.

Another Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has received $52,500 over the past decade. At the hearing, he brought up questions, but Leahy did not openly propose the merger.

The truth is that some of the toughest questions on Wednesday came from those who received the least amount of money from Comcast.

Republican Mike Lee of Utah has only received $17,500. But then, again, he's still a freshman senator, but here's what he said on Wednesday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: I’ve heard some concerns expressed that the emerging Comcast, the post-merger Comcast might have the incentive or even the predilection, but certainly enhanced capacity due to its larger size to discriminate against types of content, including political content.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: And who is the senator who is way down the bottom of the list of Comcast generosity? That's Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota. On Wednesday, he was the only one to openly oppose the merger.

So, what is the relationship between all this money and how the senators treat cable executives and treat this merger? And why does Senator Franken think this merger is such a bad idea?

He joins me now to talk about all these issues.

Senator, thank you for coming here.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: I was rattling off some examples on the introduction of Comcast donations to lawmakers. It seems very difficult to believe it doesn't have some effect on the response that Comcast is getting now from Washington.

Do you worry about that? Do you worry, for example, that one of the former FCC commissioners now works for Comcast, that we see that kind of coziness between government and business in this case, and that it may cause the deal to win approval?

FRANKEN: I don't like this revolving door. I don’t like this revolving door between regulators and Comcast. I thought that was kind of tacky that one of the FCC commissioners, I think just four months after they approved the Comcast/NBC deal, went over to work a high-paying job at Comcast. I just don't like that.

STELTER: And the money specifically, do you think it influences your colleagues on Capitol Hill?

FRANKEN: You know, I think Comcast does give money to people who support them, not necessarily to buy their support, but - yes, I really don't like the role of money in politics, and I think it's gotten worse and worse and worse. I think Citizens United was a very disturbing pernicious ruling. I think this latest McCutcheon ruling was awful.

So, you know, it's just giving more power to those who have money.

STELTER: And Comcast would say, you know, Senator Franken used dozen fundraising appeals in the past, when NBC proposed merger was happening. What do you say to that?

FRANKEN: Guilty as charged. I mean, I basically said I’m against this, I have some experience here. You know, as I said, I got over 100,000 people writing me saying, don't allow this to happen.

STELTER: It's not just consumers, by the way. It's also big media companies. There are CEOs of big media companies that own lots of cable channels that are very concerned about this merger, but we haven't heard them speak out.

There are –

FRANKEN: Well, that speaks volumes about how anti-competitive this is. You know why they don't speak out? They come to my office and say, this is off the record. Then they talk about how it's going to be anti-competitive, but –

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: You can't name names, then?

FRANKEN: No. They're afraid of retaliation. Doesn't that tell you everything you need to know?

STELTER: What form of retaliation? Taking channels off or paying less for the channels?

FRANKEN: Yes, not giving them access to the 40 percent of the market on, you know, on broadband or 40 percent or 50 percent on broadband. Yes, that's huge. That's the whole point. That's the whole point.

STELTER: Have you encouraged some of these content owners to speak up?

FRANKEN: Yes, you can encourage them, but they think, you know, they are committing business suicide by, you know, that they'll be retaliated against, and that shows you what's wrong here.

STELTER: It speaks to the closed system of cable and satellite distributors.

FRANKEN: And you close it more by combining the number one - this is the number one cable TV company buying the number two. And this is the number one internet broadband company buying the number three. And by the way, they also have this vertical integration where they have 12 percent of all television that's produced.

This is just - this is a disaster. This is more than about cable TV. This is about cable TV –

STELTER: Ultimately, this deal is most importantly about broadband Internet.

FRANKEN: It's most importantly about broadband Internet. And about 30 percent of the country has only one choice in broadband, and another 40 percent has only two choices. That's 70 percent of people in America that have two or fewer choices in Internet broadband.

So, if you're getting your TV from DirecTV, you still got to get your internet somehow. And if you want to watch high - you know, if you want to watch TV, you need high-speed Internet. And that's Comcast and a combination of Comcast/Time Warner Cable.

STELTER: Do you see any way this merger would help consumers? Are there positives to this? Are there silver linings?

FRANKEN: You know, I can't see one. I mean, I really can't. This is - look, Comcast has been shown to leverage their position. And I’ll give you a perfect example of the leverage. They were told by the regulators, you have the neighborhood. Now, what's the neighborhood? Well, we're on CNN right now.

STELTER: Do CNBC, Bloomberg, FOX News should all be around us on the channel?

FRANKEN: It should be, shouldn't it? Bloomberg isn't. Bloomberg, CNN - sorry - Comcast agreed to neighborhood, so agreed to put CNN next to FOX next to MSNBC next to CNBC, 24-hour cable news, and in the case of CNBC, which Comcast owns, a financial news network. What is Bloomberg? It's a financial news network.

So it should be next to CNBC so that people see Bloomberg and say, oh, I’m curious about Bloomberg.

STELTER: This wound up in litigation for years.

FRANKEN: Yes, but they were supposed to neighborhood it and they didn’t. They put Bloomberg out in the nosebleed seats. Why? They wanted more people to watch CNBC.

STELTER: You spent more time on the camera than just about anybody on Capitol Hill. You rarely do television interviews, why is that?

FRANKEN: It’s been like that.

Basically, I won, by 312 votes. I think, the people of Minnesota wanted to know that I was going to focus on them and on the job, and I - that's what I wanted to do.

STELTER: Would you go on the new "Late Show" with Stephen Colbert next year? What do you think of that announcement?

FRANKEN: I think Stephen is just brilliant, and I think every comedian and every satirist feels the same way. I think it's a great choice. It's going to be interesting to see him do it as himself. I mean, this is - and not in character.

STELTER: He's going to have to really reinvent himself.

FRANKEN: Well, and isn't that a great thing, to reinvent yourself? Now, it's a high stakes reinvention but because he’s been that character and the way he sustained it and the way he grew, I just think he's absolutely brilliant.

STELTER: Senator Franken, thank you for joining me.

FRANKEN: Thank you.

STELTER: By the way, we're going to keep trying to book Brian Roberts or David Cohen from Comcast.

### END ###

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