At eight o’clock this morning, a dozen Tea Party activists began unfurling handwritten signs and “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags outside the front entrance of the Kimmel Center. They had been shepherded there by the influential conservative group FreedomWorks to protest Comcast, which was holding its annual shareholders meeting inside. The sparse crowd didn’t quite number 60,000—the number of Philadelphia-area members it beckoned to Broad Street–and wasn’t the usual band of Comcast opponents either. Last year’s shareholders meeting was disrupted by 50 or so Occupy-aligned activists. That said, Comcast’s right-wing antagonists have more in common with the drum circle crowd than they might realize.
Comcast’s sin, as far as FreedomWorks is concerned, is owning MSNBC. (Comcast became a 100 percent owner of the left-leaning cable station in February, when it finalized the purchase of MSNBC’s parent company, NBC Universal.) “COMCAST,” one sign read, “Collaborators Obama Manipulating Confounding And Suppressing Truth.”
“Comcast Funds MSNBC’s Agenda,” read another. And that agenda, the protestors lamented, is basically Obama’s agenda. 41-year-old Anastasia Przybylski, who lives in Doylestown and runs FreedomWorks’ Pennsylvania chapter, was one of several activists who noted the similarity between MSNBC’s motto “Lean Forward,” and Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan “Forward.”
“We think the media should be aggressive, challenging both political parties,” says Tom Borelli, a senior fellow at FreedomWorks, who was the protest’s de facto leader. Why not target Fox News then? While that’s not going to happen for obvious political reasons, Borelli’s got another justification too: “Comcast is unique, they both own the content, and they own distribution. So if you’re a conservative Comcast customer in Houston, Texas, you might not want to see your money go to support the salaries of Al Sharpton, Toure, Chris Matthews.”
But what if you’re in the Philadelphia-area cable market, more than 60 percent of which is controlled by Comcast? Well, in that case, boycotting isn’t quite so easy. “I keep trying to change, but it’s not available yet,” says Pat Kelly, a 66-year-old woman who lives Northeast Philadelphia. “And I live in an apartment, so they won’t allow me to get the dish, so I’m stuck with Comcast.”
Marc Grove, a flag-waving 45-year-old from Doylestown, has the same problem. “I live in an apartment complex. They only allow Comcast to be the provider in the complex. So if I want TV, I have no choice.” Elaine Couch, a 71-year-old member of the Northeast Tea Party Patriots, could buy Verizon FiOS, but doesn’t want to go through the hassle of switching from Comcast. “I’m so used to my system and the way everything is set up.” (Given the recent service-sharing partnership deal struck between the two companies, switching from one to the another isn’t much of a protest anyways.)
There’s irony in this complaint, coming from Tea Party activists. One of the left’s main gripes with Comcast is that through political influence, it unfairly dominates not only Philadelphia’s cable and Internet market, but the entire country’s. Take, for instance, its blockbuster merger with, and subsequent acquisition of NBCUniversal, which has made it the largest cable provider in the country, and one of the biggest owners of channels. Likewise, good government groups like the Sunlight Foundation have frequently criticized Comcast for stifling broadband competition in certain markets. Jonathan Valania, on this site, lamented the increasingly “corporatist” bent of the Supreme Court, after it ruled in March against two million Comcast customers, who claimed the company had illegally monopolized the market. Whatever the cause, it flexes considerable political muscle.
The reason FreedomWorks is protesting Brian Roberts, rather than MSNBC President Phil Griffin, has a lot to do with this critique. “It’s really anti-competitive,” says Borelli, whose just-launched “Market Freedom Project” will continue to hammer away at Comcast. “Smaller businesses can’t compete with those who have political access.”
Indeed, MSNBC aside, Comcast may prove to be an exceptionally trusty bogeyman for the left and the right. Seventy-year-old protestor Bill Rodebaugh—a DirecTV customer—fondly recalls the time a Comcast rep recently dropped by his home in the Northeast to ask him why he left. “And I said, ‘Well, if you want to know the truth of the matter, the service sucked.'”