David Cohen is the hard-charging 56-year-old veteran of Philadelphia… (Michael Perez/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
PHILADELPHIA — In fall 2009, Comcast planned to launch an Internet service for the poor that was sure to impress federal regulators. But David Cohen, the company’s chief of lobbying, told the staff to wait.
At the time, Comcast was planning a controversial $30 billion bid to take over NBC Universal, and Cohen needed a bargaining chip for government negotiations.
“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.
“David loves politics, he loves government, and he has incredible situational awareness — a 360-degree view of business,” said Blair Levin, a former senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “He’s just so good at what he does.”
Cohen benefits from Comcast’s willingness to spend lavishly to get federal officials to see things the firm’s way.
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.