For Comcast-NBCU, Charity Begins at the FCC

The cable giant finds that corporate philanthropy pays dividends when it comes to support for its $30B proposal to acquire NBC Universal

Comcast is hoping that federal regulators are, like Comcast itself, in a giving mood.

To reinforce a $100-million blitzkrieg of 80-plus lobbyists and an untold numbers of PR spinmeisters, the cable giant is counting on its charitable ties to cherry-blossom festivals and small-town baseball leagues to help win consent for its proposed $30 billion merger with NBC Universal.

And in a bit of a role reversal, the company in some cases has gone hat-in-hand to solicit the support of its philanthropic beneficiaries.

During its almost year-long charm offensive to favorably sway regulators, Comcast has deployed its army of professional influencers to capture support of influential national organizations, ranging from the Chamber of Commerce and Urban League to the Boys and Girls Clubs, who marshalled their local and state branches.

Comcast also secured big-name endorsements by high profile public officials, including Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger (California), David Paterson (New York) and Ed Rendell (Pennsylvania).

But as the merger-approval marathon heads into the final stretch, the heartfelt sentiments of homespun  beneficiaries of Comcast’s philanthropy could prove to be crucial.

“Over the past few years, Comcast has generously donated services and sponsorship to our events,” Diana Mayhew, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Cherry Blossom Festival, wrote to the Federal Communications Commission in July. “I believe as Comcast teams up with NBC, it will continue to be a great partner for the Cherry Blossom Festival.”

Comcast, the largest cable operator, is striking a humble tone. In a statement, Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's vice president of government communications, told TheWrap: “We've been involved in our local communities for years, and we work every day with so many local organizations who have been more than glad to tell the FCC how they feel about us from first-hand experience. We're very grateful for all of their support.”

Cynics, of course, will say the outpouring of support merely demonstrate that corporate philanthropy comes with strings attached. As far as the FCC is concerned, close-knit and cordial relations with the local community is an essential quality to highlight by operators of local television, where Comcast-NBC’s footprint would be huge.

For Comcast, which has doled out $1.8 billion in cash and in-kind largess to non-profit organizations since 2001 (see chart below), it recipients indeed do represent a captive audience of warm-and-fuzzy feelings toward a generous corporate benefactor. And their many testimonials to the FCC — which along with the Justice Department will make the final decision on the merger — help paint a panoramic picture of how a sprawling cable giant insinuates itself into the fabric of local life beyond the home television set.

Yet all is fair in the love and warfare that has always surrounded mega-media deals. The supporters' message — that the deal is right up there with mom, apple pie and the flag — is a legitimate counterpoint to the view of powerful detractors that the Comcast-NBC Universal combination is, well, evil incarnate.

The letter “was a good way for me to make it known how much support they have given,” Mayhew of the Cherry Blossom Festival told TheWrap. When asked how she learned that Comcast could use her support, she answered, “It came to my attention.”

Jackie Taylor, executive director of Comcast beneficiary Black Ensemble Theater, became aware a few positive comments would be welcome when she was “notified by Comcast” last June. She promptly notified the FCC, getting swiftly, but briefly to the point: “We’re writing to support the Comcast-NBC Universal joint venture. We ask that this be submitted for the public record.”

The chairman of the National Hmong Grave Desecration Committee, was more effusive in a letter last month. Were it not for Comcast’s distribution of “crossing TV’s multicultural content,” the “substantial number of Hmong in the Central Valley of California” would have been bereft of Hmong news and entertainment, Vang Xiong X. Toyed wrote.

The letter cited the example as “a clear indication” that the cable company would continue to be responsive to “underserved communities … subsequent to a merger with NBC Universal.”

Toyed, who lives in Spokane, Washington, was asked to supply a letter in an e-mail from a Sacramento television station. “I was requested,” he said.

With headquarters in Philadelphia. Comcast is especially appreciated in Pennsylvania. “Comcast … helped our baseball association raise enough money to build a batting cage last year,” W. David Montz, manager of the Borough of Green Tree, near Pittsburgh, wrote the FCC in June. “This may seem like a small gesture, but it means a great deal to our thriving ball league. I believe Comcast would be an excellent partner to any community.”

NiceTown, a low-to-moderate income section of northwest Philadelphia, would agree. “A $100,000 matching grant, a computer lab complete with technology support, courtesy internet service and more than 15 new computers” — all donated, wrote Majeedah A. Rashid, executive vice president of  NiceTown Community Development Corporation. “[A] stronger Comcast will mean continued contributions to communities in transition like ours.”

Hometown, Illinois, seemed to speak for all of small-town USA.

“In these trying times many companies have made cutbacks and one of the cutbacks seems to be community relations,” City Clerk Mary Jo C. Hacker wrote in July. “That is 100% not happening at Comcast.” In addition to free internet service for City Hall and other municipal departments, Comcast was one of the biggest sponsors this year of Hometown’s Community Chest Golf Outing, an annual fundraiser that benefits needy Hometownies.

Comcast had asked Hometown officials to appear at a public hearing on the transaction to express the towns support. But the date conflicted with a town council meeting.

“Is there anything else we can do to help,” Hacker asked.

The pledge of a letter of Hometown support was a donation Comcast couldn’t refuse.