Comcast Corp. was hoping to focus on its financial achievements and the benefits of its proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable during its annual shareholders meeting, but the cable giant continues to be dogged by concerns that it is already too big and powerful.
Comcast on Wednesday met with shareholders in Philadelphia and highlighted business milestones, including last year's revenue growth of more than 3% to nearly $65 billion.
"We start 2014 with the best momentum in the company's history," Comcast Chairman and Chief Executive Brian L. Roberts told about 100 shareholders in attendance. "The company truly is at the cross section, the intersection, of technology and media."
But while the 75-minute meeting was underway inside Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, more than 50 protesters gathered outside under threatening skies to blast Comcast's planned $45-billion takeover of Time Warner Cable.
The proposed transaction -- which would make Comcast the dominant cable TV and residential Internet service provider in the United States -- has galvanized consumer groups.
"So many people around the county dislike this plan to allow Comcast to gobble up so many more customers, including in major markets like Los Angeles," Hannah Sassaman, who helped organize the protest, said after the rally.
"Comcast has a monopoly because, in my West Philadelphia neighborhood, I can't get Verizon FiOS," she said. "And I'm paying $150 a month for Comcast and that's a big chunk of our budget."
Consolidating 7 million of Time Warner Cable's subscribers would give Comcast more than 40% of the U.S. high-speed Internet service market. Sassaman and other activists contend that would allow Comcast too tight a grip on the nation's information highway.
"People have to understand that access to an affordable Internet is a necessity," Sassaman said. "You need access to the Internet to apply for a job or find healthcare. These are the paths to a dignified life."
Media consolidation has accelerated this year with Comcast's bid to buy Time Warner Cable. Earlier this week, phone behemoth AT&T unveiled its $49-billion deal to acquire one of Comcast's main competitors, satellite TV giant DirecTV.
Both the AT&T-DirecTV deal and the Comcast-Time Warner Cable transaction must be approved by federal regulators.
"We think this is bringing together two great long-standing cable companies who operate in different markets," Roberts told shareholders. "To have those [Time Warner Cable] markets joined with our world-class suite of products will enable us to continue to innovate and grow our company."
Comcast maintains that the merger would benefit the public because it intends to bring a higher level of service to current Time Warner Cable customers. In addition, Comcast has pledged to continue to adhere to so-called net neutrality rules that encourage equal treatment of traffic on the Internet.
Inside the meeting, a handful of shareholders took the opportunity to criticize Comcast. Only one of about 10 speakers mentioned the Time Warner Cable merger as a concern.
Instead, two speakers decried what they viewed as a liberal agenda by the company and its MSNBC cable news channel. One speaker, David Ridenour, noted that Roberts and other ranking Comcast executives have made campaign contributions to such liberal firebrands as U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California). Ridenour said his wife was a longtime Comcast investor.
Several members of a Chicago branch of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union traveled to Philadelphia to call on Roberts to resolve a lengthy and bitter contract dispute.
They demanded that Comcast significantly increase the pay of technicians in Chicago who respond to service calls.
Two of the technicians told Roberts, whose compensation topped $30 million last year, that in three hours he earns the same amount of money that they make in an entire year.
"We can have a great company, but it's time, Brian, to do the right thing," one of the workers said.
One Pennsylvania investor complained about customer service, but said the situation had improved. The man praised the efforts of a Comcast technician dispatched to his house to fix problems as well as a Comcast representative named Doug who had been patient and helpful.
"Without him, my wife and I would be pulling our hair out now," the man said.
Indeed, Comcast has stepped up its campaign to be more responsive. Engineers have installed easy-to-navigate customer service features, including the ability to use a smartphone or computer to check account balances and report service outages.
Managers have increased customer service training and shortened call-back times so customers do not have to endure lengthy waits on hold on the phone to speak to a representative.
"We have set as our No. 1 priority to improve customer service," Roberts said.
He added that 42% of Comcast customers now use self-service features, resulting in a reduction of 20 million calls a year, to deal with questions and service problems.
Comcast also has reduced technician visits to customer homes by 13 million "truck rolls" a year.
Shareholders reelected Comcast's board members -- including Roberts -- and ratified the compensation packages provided to top executives.
Investors, however, rejected three proposals from shareholders that did not have the support of the company. One included a request by the Episcopal Church that Comcast provide greater detail on its government lobbying efforts and strategy.
Comcast employs 130 lobbyists and spent nearly $19 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It ranks among the nation's top corporate spenders.
Roberts controls 33.3% of Comcast's voting stock, which gives him considerable sway over the company's decision-making.
His father and company co-founder, Ralph J. Roberts, pressed for the two classes of stock more than 40 years ago when the company went public in a bid to preserve family control.
Comcast shares closed up 70 cents Wednesday to $51.35 a share.