For much of the last 20 years, you’d be hard pressed to find a more universally despised company than Comcast Corporation. The cable giant is so disliked by American consumers, it has won awards for being the “worst company in America” on several occasions. From its historically-terrible customer service to an endless array of obnoxious and anti-competitive behavior, Comcast is the picture-perfect example of what occurs when giant corporations are allowed to merge over and over again.
And yet year after year, we allow Comcast to grow larger and more powerful.
Case in point: In 2011, regulators signed off on Comcast’s massive, $30 billion acquisition of NBC Universal. Obama-era regulators approved the merger despite well-documented worries about such a large company monopolizing not only the broadband and cable connections to the home, but the information and news being sent over those same lines. Regulators affixed a number of arguably flimsy conditions to the deal in an attempt to protect consumers and competition. And despite the fact that Comcast was allowed to craft many of these conditions itself, regulators would go on to find that the cable giant was able to easily tap dance over, around, and under most of them. Fast forward to this week, and Comcast is reportedly not only considering a $30 billion acquisition of European cable TV giant Sky, but is also considering a $60 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which would also give it a majority ownership stake in Hulu.
According to Comcast, it will only proceed with the deal if AT&T is successful in its own $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner. The DOJ is suing to block that deal, though most analysts believe AT&T’s going to emerge victorious, giving the green light to numerous companies (like Sprint and T-Mobile) looking for a sign that their own mega-deals will be allowed to proceed.
While Comcast’s Fox deal isn’t quite as bad as it could be (it won’t include Fox’s broadcast or news channels), consumer advocates say it will still provide Comcast with the scale, power and leverage to make life increasingly miserable for the smaller companies, journalists, and media operations trying to compete with it.
“Rampant media consolidation is a longstanding trend that has devastated the institution of journalism and made it even harder for marginalized communities to have their stories told in their own words,” argues Free Press Research Director Derek Turner.
“The internet with its lack of traditional barriers once promised to counteract the ills of big media consolidation, but only if it could remain an unfettered pathway largely free of the hyper-commercialization that defines the old media system,” Turner said. “But U.S. policymakers have delivered a series of bad decisions that threaten the internet’s promise as an independent force for good and not just another ad-dominated property in big media’s empire.” The biggest problem is that M&A mania isn’t even our biggest problem. Thanks to telcos that are simply refusing to upgrade aging DSL lines at any real scale, Comcast has been quietly cementing a growing monopoly over the country’s broadband connections. According to FCC data, huge swaths of America see virtually no competition at faster speeds, with Comcast usually being a customer’s only option.
This lack of broadband competition has repercussions that extend well beyond broadband. For example, privacy and net neutrality violations are just a symptom of this lack of competition. Without meaningful competition, consumers can’t vote with their wallet and switch ISPs, meaning there’s no organic market pressure for Comcast to behave.
When a market is clearly broken, usually regulators step in to try and embrace policies that foster real competition.
But here in the States, Comcast has been incredibly effective in the Trump era at quickly dismantling any meaningful regulatory oversight of the company. From gutting net neutrality and axing privacy rules, to attempts to weaken both FCC and FTC oversight of major telecom and media monopolies, there’s a perfect storm of unaccountability on the horizon.
“The potential Comcast-Fox deal would be concerning during normal times, but is even more alarming in an era where the Trump administration and the pro-corporate members of Congress have placed Net Neutrality in jeopardy and are in the process of dismantling the few remaining policies that prevent local media monopolies,” Turner notes.
Trump’s FCC boss Ajit Pai is currently under investigation for corruption after he spent much of last year dismantling decades-old media consolidation rules largely to help grease the skids for Sinclair Broadcasting’s $3.9 billion merger with Tribune. These rules were specifically designed to protect consumers and competitors from precisely this type of rampant consolidation.
Created in 1969, Comcast has spent decades prioritizing growth and expansion over innovation. As Comcast focused on gobbling up smaller cable operators, it refused to invest equally in scaling up customer service and support, a major reason why Comcast has some of the worst customer service and satisfaction ratings of any company, in any industry in America.
With regulators handcuffed, broadband competition waning, net neutrality on the ropes and Comcast and AT&T hoovering up broadcasters to cement their domination of the emerging streaming video market, the writing is on the wall for all of Comcast’s worst tendencies to be amplified many times over.