Laissez-faire Republican is battling the Comcast-NBC deal

That labor unions such as the Communications Workers of America, advocacy groups including the National Coalition of African American Owned Media and competing media companies are making noise in Washington about the impact that cable giant Comcast’s proposed takeover of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal would have on the media landscape is hardly a surprise.

That a laissez-faire Republican and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission would be at the forefront of the efforts to derail — or at least radically alter — the Comcast-NBC Universal deal is a good deal more surprising.

It’s nonetheless the role Kevin Martin has forged for himself, one that has him acting more like an apostate than an apostle of the media establishment.

“For a former FCC chairman to get involved in such a high-profile issue like this is fairly unusual,” said Art Brodsky, a director at Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group that itself has “serious doubts over whether the Comcast-NBC Universal merger is “in the public interest.”

Martin, who served as chairman of the FCC from 2005 to the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, might seem an unusual choice to be the voice of the little guy against big media. As head of the FCC, Martin fought to loosen many of the regulations governing the media and telecommunications industry and supported one of the most controversial mergers that occurred on his watch: the combination of satellite radio rivals Sirius and XM.

Since leaving the FCC and joining the powerhouse Washington law firm Patton Boggs, Martin has made battling the Comcast- NBC deal a full-time job. To be sure, there’s plenty in the deal to give lawmakers, activists and rivals pause. The proposed $30-billion merger would put the largest cable and broadband provider under one roof with a programming behemoth whose assets include the NBC network, cable channels CNBC, MSNBC, USA and Bravo and the movie studio Universal Pictures.

Andrew Schwartzman, policy director of Media Access Project, a liberal-leaning public interest law firm, has called the Comcast-NBC deal “the most important merger since Lucy married Desi.”

Martin counts the business-media empire Bloomberg as a new client, as well as the communications workers union, or CWA, and the African American-owned media advocacy group, or NCAAOM. Bloomberg has not officially come out against the Comcast-NBC merger, but it owns a business channel — Bloomberg TV — and has expressed concern about the advantage NBC’s financial channel CNBC could get from being owned by Comcast.

Whenever a big media merger is in the works, watchdogs, activists and rivals rise up either to fight the deal or squeeze concessions out of the companies. Already there have been four Congressional hearings probing the deal, which is under review by both the FCC and the Justice Department.

Martin’s role as a thorn in the side of Comcast goes against the grain in Washington’s clubby legal circles. While it’s common for former regulators to go back to private practice after their government service is over, they tend to keep low profiles as they work on behalf of the very industries they once regulated. Martin mentor Dick Wiley, who was FCC chairman in the 1970s and now heads the communications law firm Wiley Rein, set the standard for transitioning from regulator to rainmaker, with clients including Viacom Inc., AT&T Inc. and Toshiba Corp.

Former FCC chairmen often hope to turn their stints in government into big paydays in the private sector. Some succeed — Martin’s two predecessors Michael Powell and William Kennard joined private equity firms — but others end up back on the legal circuit searching for clients.

“As important as they are in the world’s stage when they are chairman, when they come back down to earth they tend to filter back into their chosen professions,” said Dan Brenner, a veteran communications lawyer with Hogan & Hartson, who once served as the chief legal aide to an FCC commissioner.

Martin’s clients are among the most vocal opponents of the Comcast-NBC deal. The CWA union has charged in testimony before Congress that Comcast has a “sordid track record” when it comes to employees’ rights, and the NCAAOM advocacy group flat-out accused the cable operator of racism.

“For decades Comcast has shut the door to African American ownership of channels,” said Stanley E. Washington, president of NCAAOM, who added that pension funds by virtue of their investment in Comcast “are supporting apartheid right here in America.” NCAAOM is demanding that the FCC require Comcast to set aside at least 25 channels owned by African Americans.

Martin declined requests to be interviewed about his views on Comcast and its deal to acquire NBC Universal.

When asked to respond to the CWA allegation, Comcast cited a blog post by Executive Vice President David Cohen. “The CWA’s greatest objection to Comcast is that thousands of our employees voted to decertify the union after we acquired AT&T’s cable properties in 2002,” Cohen wrote on the Comcast website.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice declined to comment on Martin, but denied the accusations made by NCAAOM.

“Comcast distributes a variety of minority- and/or independently owned channels,” she said, citing as examples the company’s carriage agreements with independent channels such as the Black Television News Channel and the Africa Channel. Comcast also carries and owns a stake in TV One, a cable network aimed at African Americans.

While Martin adopted a deregulatory stance towards much of the media industry when he was at the FCC, he was known for a hard line when it came to cable. He advocated new regulations for the industry, including a push to get cable operators to offer channels on an individual or a la carte basis rather than in bundles. Many of those efforts did not succeed.

George Kohl, a senior director of the CWA, acknowledges that on the surface, the pairing of the Republican Martin with a left-leaning union is “an odd relationship.”

Kohl said the association and Martin have found common ground on issues regarding the Internet and open access. Indeed, it was the FCC under Martin’s leadership that that took Comcast to court charging that it discriminated against customers who used BitTorrent technology to download videos. This month, an appeals court ruled in favor of Comcast, saying the FCC had overstepped its authority because it does not have oversight over the regulation of Internet traffic.

“He did a lot of things as chairman that didn’t seem very Republican,” said John Hane, a communications lawyer with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.