But when it comes to getting approval for Comcast to buy its biggest
rival, Time Warner Cable Inc, Cohen must win over someone just as
well versed in the ways of lobbyists and the cable industry: Federal
Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Wheeler headed the cable trade group from 1979 to 1984 and ran the
wireless industry association from 1992 to 2004. Since taking over
the FCC last November, however, he has not shied away from stances
that have roiled past allies.
One of his most attention-grabbing moves was in February, when
Wheeler publicly expressed skepticism about a potential merger
between wireless carriers Sprint Corp and T-Mobile U.S. Inc.
"You can't kid a kidder. Having been a lobbyist, he knows all their
tricks," Blair Levin, a fellow at the Washington-based nonprofit
Aspen Institute, said of Wheeler.
Comcast will formally request an FCC review of the $45.2 billion
Time Warner Cable deal later in March. The combined company will
cover just under 30 percent of the U.S. pay television video market
and about 33 percent of the high-speed Internet market, according to
Wheeler and other FCC officials have declined to comment on the
proposed merger before seeing the details. Even privately, Wheeler
has given few hints of his views, leaving all options on the table,
FCC sources say.
"All we can ask for is a full, fair, and open hearing — and I think
Chairman Wheeler's message is that is what we will get," Cohen told
Reuters in February.
Cohen, 59, has yet to meet with Wheeler, 67, about the review, but
the Comcast executive vice president has made the rounds at the FCC,
asking staff to keep an open mind even as some lawmakers and public
interest groups criticize the merger.
Opponents say the combined company will have too much power over
what Americans can watch on television and do online. Comcast says
it will not take away any existing choices from consumers, and will
instead lead to faster broadband speeds and serve businesses better.
Comcast ranks among the top-ten corporate influencers in Washington,
having spent $18.8 million on lobbying last year, according to the
nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Cohen and Wheeler do not know each other well, according to Cohen,
but their paths have crossed in senior political and industry
Both men are supporters of President Barack Obama, each helping to
raise more than half a million dollars for his re-election campaign
in 2012, according to disclosures.
Wheeler advised Obama on tech policy, and the president has called
him "the Bo Jackson of telecom" because of Wheeler's history in the
cable and wireless industries. Jackson is the only athlete to be
named an All-Star in two major American sports, baseball and
Cohen, too, is no stranger to Obama's White House. Visitor logs put
Cohen, who is not a registered lobbyist, there for meetings and
receptions 14 times since 2010, including twice at the Oval Office.
[to top of second column]
People who know Cohen and Wheeler describe them in similar terms:
steady negotiators with a strong grasp of the issues at stake, as
well as the players at the table.
Cohen "goes to a meeting and knows exactly who is going to be
there and what are their dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses,
positioning, what they've done for him and how much they've helped
him," said a former colleague who requested anonymity.
A long-time Philadelphia power broker, Cohen in the 1990s was the
closest aide to then Mayor Ed Rendell, who turned around the city's
budget deficit and battled labor unions over cost cuts. Cohen is
known as a fixer who keeps binders full of data at his fingertips.
Colleagues of Wheeler, a published historian, also highlight his
"He knows these issues like the back of his hand," one FCC official
who works with Wheeler said of the chairman. "He knows how the
business runs. He knows these people, he knows what they think and
what policies they want."
As FCC chairman, Wheeler has publicly and repeatedly stated his
"unabashed" support for competition. He has also hired a heavyweight
consumer advocate, Gigi Sohn, as a senior adviser.
DEAL'S FATE IN FCC'S HANDS
The Justice Department and the FCC are expected to take months to
review the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, focusing on antitrust
and public interest concerns respectively.
Comcast has tried to ease the way for the deal with a range of
commitments, some of them extensions of the promises it made as part
of the NBC Universal acquisition. For instance, Comcast said it
would divest about 3 million subscribers, preserve so-called net
neutrality and extend a discounted Internet service program.
TV and Internet content companies say they are formulating their
strategies on dealing with the proposed merger of the two largest
cable service providers. Some are interviewing lobby shops to
potentially use their help to win concessions from Comcast related
to carrying their content.
"In the longer run there are some questions on competition that any
deal like this will look at, the government will look at and make
sure the appropriate conditions are in place to optimize
competition," Time Warner Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes said at a
conference on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh in
Washington and Liana B. Baker in New York; editing by Christian
Plumb and Tiffany Wu)
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