“I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive to the chairman” of the Federal Communications Commission, Cohen said in a recent interview.
The strategy was quintessential Cohen. The hard-charging 56-year-old veteran of Philadelphia politics and Democratic campaign bundler is Comcast’s chief dealmaker in Washington.
In Cohen’s decade at the firm, Comcast has ballooned in size through a series of mergers that he has steered through government approvals. Today, with $58 billion in annual revenue, Philadelphia-based Comcast is the nation’s biggest provider of broadband Internet and cable television and the owner of network television programs, a movie studio and broadcast stations across the country. Any company doing business in media or technology crosses paths with Comcast and usually comes with hat in hand, eager to reach the cable giant’s 22 million customers.
A consequence of all that power is a stubbornly strong cable television model that keeps many households paying upward of $100 a month for their service bundles, critics of the company say. Even as Verizon, Apple, Netflix and YouTube have tried to capture the living room, Comcast still dominates.
Such pricing structures are anathema in Silicon Valley. By now, cheaper a la carte television viewing was supposed to have taken over American homes, where just an Internet connection would give consumers the pick of any video, like the food off a restaurant menu. This remains out of reach for most Americans, though Apple and Google are pushing to bring it into the mainstream.
But if anything, Comcast’s rising influence and bottom line have shown that the power remains in the hands of the cable guy.
“They are hugely important,” Joel Kelsey, a policy director at consumer interest group Free Press, said of Comcast, “because they can single-handedly sink or swim multiple businesses that rely on the Internet ecosystem by virtue of controlling the dissemination of information through their pipes, and now by supplying so much of the content.”
“So many companies have come to us and asked that we fight their battles for them because they are afraid of retribution,” he added.
Part wonk, part rock star
A critical part of Comcast’s strategy is Cohen, its secret weapon. The father of two would not turn heads outside the Beltway. He drives a Toyota 4Runner and prefers unfussy dark suits and garden-variety wire-rim eyeglasses. But in the rarified circles of Washington, with his vast network of high-powered contacts, Cohen enjoys rock-star status.
His appeal comes from an ease with government bureaucracy, say his friends and even his critics. Cohen is a policy and political wonk with a voracious appetite for white papers and data on arcane telecommunications regulations. Pole attachments, retransmission consent and program-access terrestrial loopholes are jumbles of FCC jargon to most, but that’s Cohen’s language of love.