Political Power and Consumer Pain in Comcast’s Philadelphia

"The city's highest-grossing company flexes its might at all levels of government." Published in City Paper by Dan Denvir. 

As City Councilman Bill Greenlee recently fought to pass a bill mandating that some companies offer employees paid sick leave, he got a lesson in how Philly’s largest businesses feel about such regulations. One lobbyist, says Greenlee, broke it down for him: The lobbyist “said to me, in a frustrated manner, ‘Dammit, we don’t want you to tell us what to do,’” Greenlee recalls. “I think that’s really what [the resistance to paid sick leave] is all about.” 

Leading the charge under that banner was Philly’s highest-grossing company, Comcast. Last year Comcast spent $108,429.36 on Philly lobbyists, primarily targeting paid sick leave. Since Comcast is believed to already provide paid sick leave to most of its employees, critics theorize that the company wants to make another point — that it can do what it pleases. 

And it often does, flexing its political might at all levels of government, from City Council to Pennsylvania’s General Assembly to the United States Congress. These tactics have won Comcast millions of dollars’ worth of government largesse and soft-touch regulation, and supplied supportive politicians with generous campaign contributions. But consumer advocates say we’re getting the short end of this deal. 

They point, in particular, to 2011, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Comcast’s mammoth and controversial merger with NBC-Universal. Critics argued that the combination of Comcast, the country’s largest cable and Internet-service provider, and NBCU, a major content producer, would allow the company to shut out rival content producers and distributors.

“Telecommunications policy in this country is the story of monopoly, concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a few. Ultimately, consumers lose,” says Todd O’Boyle, of the good-government group Common Cause. “Comcast, as the nation’s largest cable provider, holds the cards. They name their own terms with consumers and, too often, with regulators.”

Nowhere was merger support stronger than in Philadelphia, where then-Gov. Ed Rendell said it would bring “prestige” to the city and Mayor Michael Nutter gushed that “any announcement that shines a positive national spotlight on Philadelphia can only be good news for this city and for all Philadelphians.” 

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