U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine is leading a national petition drive urging the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to block the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner, the nation’s two largest cable TV and Internet providers.
On Monday, Pingree posted a message on the website of the social action group CREDO asking people to sign her petition to Attorney General Eric Holder. As of Wednesday evening, more than 93,500 signatures had been recorded.
On Wednesday, Pingree sent emails from her campaign organization asking people to sign the petition to Holder on her campaign website.
The petition drive appears unique. Web searches don’t turn up similar efforts led by elected officials, and Pingree’s office could not find similar efforts, said Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree.
The proposed merger has caused a storm of protest from consumer and social action groups. Several petition drives started by advocacy groups, including Common Cause and Free Press, are being run online, and a petition protesting the merger is on the petitions page of the White House website, whitehouse.gov. That petition had more than 90,000 signatures Wednesday.
Pingree, who was president of Washington-based Common Cause before she was elected to Congress in 2008, said Wednesday that she has long been interested in issues involving media consolidation and the potential harm to consumers.
She said the merger of Comcast and Time Warner, announced in mid-February, makes her worry that consumers will pay higher prices and get fewer choices.
“I’m worried about what a merger would do to consumers and I believe it would lead to less competition and higher prices,” Pingree said in a written statement. “One of my biggest concerns is how a combined Comcast/Time Warner would have control over Internet access for tens of millions of people, and if they chose to they could use that power to go after competitors like Netflix or Hulu. We need more competition in this industry, not less.”
Time Warner Cable is Maine’s largest cable TV and Internet provider, with more than 300,000 customers in the state.
The Attorney General’s Office would not comment Wednesday on the proposed merger, or on whether the office is receiving petitions.
The merger needs approval from the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces federal antitrust regulations and is headed by the attorney general.
Representatives for Comcast could not be reached for comment on Pingree’s petition drive.
Joli Plucknette-Farmen, a spokeswoman for Time Warner, said Wednesday that the proposed merger “will not harm competition or reduce consumers’ choice in any way” because Time Warner and Comcast don’t compete for customers, and instead serve different geographic areas.
But analysts have said the merger would force others in the cable and telecommunications industry to consolidate, as companies face pressure to compete for customers and programming strength.
The merger could have some long-term effects for companies that own Maine’s TV stations and collect fees from cable companies for the right to retransmit their programming. Combined, Time Warner and Comcast would reach more homes and therefore have more negotiating muscle. In the past few years, disputes over retransmission fees have caused some stations to be taken out of cable lineups temporarily, leaving viewers without those channels.
While no date for a decision on the merger has been set by the FCC or the Attorney General’s Office, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to examine the merger’s potential impact on consumers March 26.
The proposed $45.2 billion merger would combine the nation’s two largest cable operators. Comcast has 22 million pay TV customers, and Time Warner Cable would contribute 11.2 million customers. Comcast has said the combined company would divest about 3 million customers, reducing its customer base to about 30 million – a level that regulators have been sensitive to in the past.
Ritch said no other members of Maine’s congressional delegation are specifically involved with Pingree’s petition drive.
Scott Ogden, a spokesman for Sen. Angus King, said King is examining details of the merger and “is committed to preserving and expanding access to high-speed, affordable broadband, especially in rural areas of Maine.”
Ogden also said King “is inherently skeptical of large companies growing even larger, and in this particular situation, how that may impact competition, prices, and consumer services.”
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
In the email she sent out Wednesday, she said “the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner would create the largest and most powerful cable and Internet empire in the United States. This would be a bad deal for consumers, leading to less competition and likely higher prices for subscribers.”
Pingree’s email includes a place for readers to click and add their names to the petition. The email carries a note at the bottom that it was paid for by Pingree’s campaign organization, Chellie Pingree for Congress. She used that website because she is not allowed to use congressional websites or email addresses for a petition drive, Ritch said.
Pingree has protested actions involving Time Warner in the past. In December, she wrote to Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, asking him to reconsider the company’s decision to drop the New England Cable Network. After pressure from viewers and other politicians, Time Warner decided to keep NECN in its lineup.
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: