The company’s growth has been mirrored in Washington, where Cohen has multiplied his staff to 20 full-time lobbyists and policy experts and dozens of outside lobbyists. Comcast spent $8.3 million on lobbying last year, putting it in ninth place for K Street spending, above Verizon, Lockheed Martin and Royal Dutch Shell, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cohen says the company has to spend more because it is a natural target of scrutiny. He also defends the cable business model, saying it costs billions a year to maintain Comcast’s network.
Content, say Cohen and other Comcast executives, is expensive to create. Without the bundling of channels, they say, some programs would not survive and the quality of television would fall. They noted that most NBC Universal content is available online, where it can be accessed cheaply or free.
“People say cable is a deregulated industry, but we are like the most regulated of the deregulated,” Cohen said during a typical one-day Washington blitz of media events and meetings with lobbyists and federal regulators. “There’s not a day that doesn’t go by at the FCC that doesn’t affect our company.”
The company does not always lobby by spending lots of money.
In May 2011, a Comcast manager threatened to pull funding from a Seattle-based media advocacy group that criticized the company for hiring a former Republican FCC official, Meredith Attwell Baker, just after she supported the NBC Universal deal.
Markham Erickson, an attorney for Bloomberg and several Web firms, said companies are often afraid to challenge Comcast. They worry that the cable giant will cut them out of business deals or force them into costly legal battles, he said. Bloomberg has waged a two-year battle with Comcast over the placement of its business news channel in the hinterlands of the TV dial.
“It’s ridiculous when you look at the long list of lawyers Comcast has on retainer,” Erickson said. “It’s just too intimidating for a start-up from Silicon Valley with a few employees with no legal expertise to take on.”
Comcast and other cable companies are under investigation by the Justice Department for their treatment of Web firms. Many consumers have limits on how much data they can use in their homes. Comcast does not always count its online videos against that cap but does so for Internet videos distributed via Netflix, Facebook, Amazon.com and others.
These companies, and many smaller ones, fear that people will curb their consumption of online videos if they have to pay more for Internet service.
Politics in the mix
Cohen’s career got a boost when he became the chief of staff to then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell (D) in 1992. And though his reach extends inside the Beltway, he never made Washington his home.