When Comcast officials walked into a House hearing earlier this year to address their intention to acquire NBC Universal, their opponents took immediate note of the company's blue-chip support team.
"There was a phalanx of lobbyists around them, well-dressed D.C. lobbyists," said Liz Rose, a spokeswoman with Free Press, a nonprofit group that opposes the sale. "It was a Who's Who in communication circles."
Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable company, has indeed pulled out all the stops as it seeks to smooth Congressional concerns and win federal approval to purchase the major television network from General Electric.
Since announcing the proposed sale last year, Comcast has added to its already large stable of outside lobbyists. Its advocates include former Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) of the firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Klink, who showed up at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the sale, helped craft the 1996 telecommunications law.
The company has spent $3 million in federal lobbying in the first quarter of this year, according to disclosures filed last week with Congress. General Electric, NBC's current parent company, reported spending $7.1 million during the same period.
While Comcast's lobbying spending is slightly down from the fourth quarter of last year, the latest figures do not reflect all of its activities. Lobbying disclosure law does not require companies or groups to report expenditures for preparation for Congressional hearings or required federal agency submissions. Comcast President Brian Roberts and NBC President Jeff Zucker have made the rounds of House and Senate panels testifying in favor of the sale and assuring lawmakers that it would not stifle competition.
Also attending the Commerce panel's hearing was Ralph Roberts, who founded Comcast when he purchased a cable television system in Tupelo, Miss., in 1963. Roberts, 90, was accompanied by former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), a lobbyist whose firm works for Comcast and who once served as a telecommunications aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Other ex-Members who are helping Comcast include former Pennsylvania Rep. William Gray (D), co-chairman of the GrayLoeffler Group, and former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), chairman of the Nickles Group. Comcast has also scooped up Federal Communications Commission staffers in recent years as it beefed up its in-house team.
Comcast's ability to work Washington has won the praise of its opponents.
"Comcast is smart and sophisticated. They are going about this in a very intelligent way," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project. "That does not mean that this transaction is one that should be approved."
No Done Deal
Despite its deep pockets and ability to snap up some of the top talent in town, Comcast is facing some determined opposition and administrative hurdles that could halt or, at least, extend how long it takes to complete the deal.
The Federal Communications Commission recently prolonged the process when it announced that it was suspending a May 3 deadline for outside comments. The FCC said it first wanted to receive two economic reports from Comcast that would detail the claimed benefits from the deal and the impact of the transaction on online video distribution.
Once it receives the reports, which Comcast officials say they intend to deliver in the next several weeks, the FCC will restart the clock on a 45-day comment period.
A host of advocacy groups as well as lawmakers and the Communications Workers of America say they will take advantage of the longer comment period to build their case against the sale.
The antitrust division of the Justice Department is also reviewing the deal, although advocacy groups say its process is far more secretive and less accessible to their pleas.
Critics have voiced concerns that the mega-deal would give the company too much control over content and allow it to freeze out Internet-based competition and cable programming.
A number of lawmakers fear the merger would result in job losses in their districts and undermine local and minority programming.
Before the FCC decided to suspend its original deadline, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced legislation that called for a 45-day extension of the agency's due date for comments on the merger.
"I am very concerned about the implications this merger has on diversity, localism and competition in today's media market," Waters wrote the agency on April 12.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and who is a former cast member of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," has aimed numerous zingers at the proposed merger and even cited his opposition to the sale in an appeal for campaign contributions.
The Communications Workers of America has complained about Comcast's history of opposing unions, noting that after the company took control of AT&T's broadband business, the company moved to decertify local union units. To help them fight the sale, the CWA, which spent $225,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, hired Kevin Martin, the former chairman of the FCC who was appointed by George W. Bush and who clashed with the cable company.
Martin chaired the FCC when it ordered Comcast to stop slowing Internet traffic to a file-sharing site, a decision the company challenged in court. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court sided with Comcast in a ruling that many high-tech companies and advocacy groups fear could erode the FCC's ability to enforce net-neutrality rules.
The legal challenge infuriated a number of lawmakers who have championed the concept of net neutrality, including Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chastised Comcast at a recent hearing on broadband.
But Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's vice president for government communications, said the debate over net neutrality should be a separate discussion from the review of the NBC sale. She said the company has posted responses to a number of the attacks leveled by opponents on its websites.
For example, in a blog on one site, comcastvoices.com, David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president who oversees government relations, defended the company's labor record, saying, "we offer fulltime employees health care benefits and company matched 401(k) accounts."
Cohen added that historically the cable industry had not seen high levels of union organizations. He wrote the decertification elections cited by the CWA was not "anything more than our employees voluntarily deciding that the union they might have wanted to represent them at AT&T was not necessary with Comcast as an employer."
Even though Comcast spends dramatically more than CWA does on lobbying, Fitzmaurice noted the union generously doles out contributions to lawmakers.
So far in the 2010 election cycle, the CWA's political action committee has contributed $699,000 to federal candidates and spent $4 million on all federal-related activity, including donations to the party committees.
Comcast's PAC has given $991,000 to candidates and spent $2 million on election-related activity. Democratic candidates received almost all of the union's contributions and just over half of Comcast's donations.
"They both have a significant amount of money and a heck of a lot of political heft," said David Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance issues.