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Al Franken’s Independent Streak

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has big plans. He is hoping the 2010s will be the “Al Franken Decade,” at least when it comes to his service in Washington. He is currently looking to be returned to the Senate for a second term this November, which would take him through 2020. According to Public Policy Polling, Franken leads all his potential Republican opponents by double-digits. That would be a big change from 2008, when he won in a recount by a razorthin margin over incumbent Norm Coleman; Franken was not sworn in until July 2009.

His current ambition, at least when it comes to the content industry, is not out of reach. With the 2010 retirement of “prairie populist” Byron Dorgan, Franken arguably inherited the mantle of the Senate’s biggest media consolidation critic (Independent Bernie Sanders also is in the hunt) with a rep for doing his homework and saying what he thinks.

Franken says his opposition to the merger of Comcast/NBCUniversal with Time Warner Cable is nothing personal. He is a former NBC employee, after all, as writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. Franken, who was also highly critical of the Comcast/ NBCU merger, believes the TWC deal is too big to succeed, if “success” means maintaining a consumer-friendly programming platform receptive to independent content. He adds that he’s not yet decided where he comes down on AT&T/DirecTV, though he has concerns.

In a rare, wide-ranging interview, Franken spoke with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about those deals, net neutrality, privacy and why the former funnyman became a serious legislator. An edited transcript follows.

How has your experience of being part of the media business, particularly working for NBC, informed and shaped how you view big media companies?

I want to emphasize that I really loved my time at Saturday Night Live. Even though I opposed Comcast buying NBC, I kind of recognized that in a way it was better for NBC to be owned by a media company rather than a company that sells toasters [GE]. But what I have been taught is that, sometimes, what these media companies say in hearings is not what happens.

I think you wrote about it when I talked about [the financial interest and syndication rules] in the Comcast/NBCU deal. The lesson was that [when the fin-syn rules were removed] they swore up and down that they wouldn’t favor their own content (Franken chuckles). And I’m laughing because you know what happened. They said: ‘Why would we do that [and favor our own content]? We just want the best shows that get the best ratings. We just want the best content.’ And then as soon as fin-syn went away, they started favoring their own content. [Fin-syn prevented networks from owning a financial interest in domestic syndication of shows on their air.] And we have seen what has happened to independent production on television. It’s plummeted. My experience was that the networks basically said: ‘Now that we can, we will own as much of our content as we can.’ And when an independent producer would do a pilot, there would be kind of an implicit understanding that if the independent owner gave some ownership to NBC it was more likely to get on the network and into a good time slot.

So they leveraged their position, and this has given me an insight into how this leverage not only can be used but is used.

Is that why you have had issues with companies adhering to conditions put on deals?

Well, even how [conditions] are able to be enforced, because of the FCC’s resources vs. the resources of these companies. You know, a Tennis Channel that is competing with Comcast/ NBCU, if they feel like Comcast is favoring its own channel, enforcing these conditions sometimes has to be through private right of action, and boy it is really hard to do that against a behemoth. And even when the FCC wants to take action, that large company can drag it out and task the resources of the FCC.

You have been a big critic of the proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. What is your biggest concern?

That it will hurt consumers, that it will be anticompetitive so we will have less innovation and worse service to consumers in Minnesota and elsewhere and less choice. It’s just too big. It is the No. 1 cable provider buying the No. 2 cable TV provider. It’s the No. 1 Internet broadband provider buying the No. 3 provider. And Comcast has about 12% or 13% of all television content, and they can leverage all of that in a way that poses a lot of difficulties that I have with competition. And it makes them a kind of gatekeeper in content. It gives them too big a position in the market, and they will leverage that position with their Wall Street investors on their phone calls.

Are there any conditions the government could put on the deal that would make it acceptable—say, extending the network neutrality conditions beyond 2018?

I am not talking about conditions at this point, because I think the FCC and [Department of Justice] should block the deal.

Do you have a similar ‘bigness’ issue with AT&T/DirecTV?

I am continuing to evaluate that deal. It is a different thing, but I have the same kind of problems. One of them is size, and what that does to competition. They say they will make broadband access available to millions of new customers and that the deal will create jobs. But this will just give AT&T a lot of power across the telecommunications industry, and that can be bad for consumers.

Comcast and others argue that they need this size and scale to compete with each other and have the wherewithal to invest in all this higher-speed, more available broadband the government is pushing them to deploy. Don’t they have a point?

When AT&T is saying it needs its size to compete with Comcast if it buys Time Warner Cable, I think that speaks to the importance of not allowing Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable because you see that more concentration of media begets more concentration of media.

I believe that media consolidation is a huge problem for American consumers and a real threat to our democracy. We need more competition, not less—because as these big corporations get bigger, consumers get stuck with higher prices, fewer choices and worse service. And these companies aren’t selling widgets; they control the means by which we communicate with each other and share ideas, so media consolidation threatens the diversity of views on which our democracy relies.

Moving to network neutrality, you are pushing the FCC to use Title II authority to restore the rules?

Yes, just label it a telecommunications industry. The [D.C. Court of Appeals] has said they could do that, and I think they should probably take the court’s advice. I think that would go a long way toward protecting net neutrality, and I think it would go a long way toward making this sphere more competitive.

You described FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed new ‘Open Internet’ order as possibly the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it. Why did you say that?

The chairman had brought up the idea of fast lanes, essentially. And I find that completely, diametrically opposed to net neutrality. I mean, the whole point of net neutrality is that all content is treated neutrally, or the same, and travels at the same speed. And that has been the architecture of the Internet from the beginning. I want people to understand that.

We’ve had members of Congress saying, “Well, we’ve had all this innovation of the Internet without net neutrality,” and they don’t understand that. I don’t want any of your readers to misunderstand that—because we have had net neutrality from the beginning, and the Internet has grown and exploded not just while we have had net neutrality but because of it. The innovation that has come along has allowed startups and new companies to compete with very large companies and beat them because their content gets to travel at the same speed.

The example I use a lot is YouTube. There was Google Video before YouTube. It was not as good as YouTube. The guys at YouTube started it over a pizza shop in San Mateo, Calif., and because they were able to travel at the same speed as Google Video, people saw YouTube and they liked it. Actually, Google bought YouTube later, and that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had net neutrality. So, without net neutrality you won’t have the kind of innovation we’ve had, and without that you don’t have the growth and all the great things that come out of the Internet.

But few companies are more powerful than Google. Should search engines and other edge providers be subject to net neutrality rules too?

Well, we have had hearings with Google on issues regarding the algorithms they use and what they put on the top of their entries. So we have had issues with that and want to make sure that Google does that in a kosher way.

But you don’t think they should be under the same regime as ISPs?

I am not sure that is a net neutrality issue. I think it is more an antitrust issue.

You were talking earlier about municipal broadband. You signed on to a letter about preempting municipal broadband regulations. Why should the FCC step in?

I think the incumbents in Internet broadband have worked to stop municipal broadband, which can serve their residents and citizens very well. [Incumbents] have funded campaigns in state legislatures to stop municipalities from doing their own broadband, and I think that’s wrong.

That is why I asked the CEO of AT&T whether they had done that, and I guess he didn’t know.

But ultimately, it is the legislatures that vote on those laws. So ostensibly they are representing their constituents.

There has just been a big lobbying effort in state legislatures that has kind of been one-sided and I think that they may not be voting in the interests of these municipalities and the citizens of these municipalities. So, it is sometimes when these very big, deep-pocketed corporations exercise those resources you get results that don’t necessarily serve the people.

Protecting privacy online is one of your signature issues. What is the latest on that front?

I have been looking at location privacy. Smartphones have exploded over the last several years and these phones have apps, and sometimes the phones themselves, that can record where you are. And I feel that this location information is sensitive. It is where you live and work and take your children to school and go to church and where and when you go to the doctor. So, I think people should have the right to control that information, to give their approval if you want to take that information and share it.

Obviously, a lot of great things come out of there being this location data. If you want to go to the nearest Pizza Hut or bowling alley or whatever, you need to do that, and you are going to say, ‘yes, take my location.’ But there also have been abuses, and one of the worst abuses was from one of the first pieces of testimony that I got when I first did hearings, which was from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. It was about a woman in Northern Minnesota in an abusive relationship who went to a county building where there was a domestic violence center and, while she was there, got a text message asking why she was at the county building. The counselors there took her to a county courthouse to file a restraining order against the guy. Within a few minutes he texted her and asked why she was in the courthouse filing a restraining order against [him].

This cyberstalking has being going on for a long time, but the last statistics DOJ has on these was, I believe, from 2006, and it was 25,000 cases. Think of what the explosion has been since then in the use of smartphones. We have had hearings with law enforcement and domestic violence groups and this is very, very prevalent.

Part of what I am trying to do with my location bill is making the marketing and selling of these [stalking apps] illegal.

Do you think the industry could address this voluntarily or is legislation needed?

I have worked with the industry to address their concerns about [getting] permission for location, but for stalking apps, there is no working with these people.

We did a hearing in which we read off the Web page of one of these companies, and it was basically: “You think your boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating on you? Follow them wherever they go without them knowing it.” But then after we read that, they instantly changed that to: “Worried where your child is?”

What made you decide to get into politics and do you see it as a natural progression from your taking aim at the right wing, both on Air America and through your books, to actually being able to do something about it through the process?

Well, yeah. I had been very conscious of public policy throughout my entire life. Ever since I was 11 or 12 years old during the civil rights movement I got kind of involved and interested in public policy. My dad was a Republican, but during the civil rights debate he became a Democrat because of the Civil Rights [Act of 1964]. Senator [Barry] Goldwater had voted against and my dad said: “That’s it.”

That was very informative to me. This is something I have always been interested in.

When I started doing comedy in high school with Tom Davis, I started doing political satire. When we got to Saturday Night Live [as writers], we were doing a lot of the political satire with Jim Downey, who is conservative, but a very, very thoughtful conservative. We didn’t feel that the job of the show was to have a point of view, politically. There were too many people represented on the show, too many cast members, too many writers. We felt the job of the show was to be insightful in our satire but not to be liberal or conservative.

I think we did a really good job of that and I am very proud of the work I did with a lot of my other writers there. But when I left the show in 1995 finally, I saw what the Gingrich revolution was, and I wrote the book about Rush Limbaugh [Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations].

That was my sort of saying: OK, now I’m not writing for a bunch of other people, I’m writing for me.

I think your take is exactly right that it was a natural progression [to politics].

The Tragedy of Paul and Sheila and Martha and others all dying in that plane crash was also part of the road there [Paul Wellstone, former Democratic senator from Minnesota, was killed in a plane crash in 2002 along with his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Martha].

You are no fan of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

Citizen’s United was a very bad decision. We tried to get disclosure, which seemed a very simple thing to do—and the court’s opinion actually said that disclosure would be a really important part of this—and it went down completely party line, skins and shirts.

Do you consciously downplay your funny side so you will be taken more seriously or are you just a Harvard government major who got sidetracked by comedy?

People have written a lot about this and I think it is overplayed. I think my staff will say I’m funny around the office and my colleagues will say I’m funny. But I’m also very serious and I think you can be funny and serious at the same time. I think Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are very serious and very funny at the same time. And I don’t think there is any contradiction there.

You Can Call Him Al

Beginning with his July 2009 swearing-in, the 63-year-old Franken hit the ground running by participating in the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in his first week on the job.

He is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as such has been a prominent inquisitor in oversight hearings for media mergers. He chairs the privacy subcommittee and has been prominent in the push for more online privacy protections.

Franken, a Harvard graduate, five-time Emmy winner and best-selling author, was also a familiar TV face, and voice, to baby boomers for decades as one of the original writer/performers on Saturday Night Live. As character Stuart Smalley, Franken sought daily affirmation that could have served as a campaign slogan: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.”

Even then, Franken held a Senate seat—albeit only in character, as the late, famously bow-tied Illinois progressive Paul Simon, whom he resembled, though not in the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin doppelganger way.

Franken says his SNL humor was not meant to be partisan, but that view changed when he exited the series in 1995. He took aim at the political right in general, and Rush Limbaugh in particular, in a series of popular books.

In 2004, he hosted a daily talk show on Air America, which was meant to be a progressive counterpoint to the conservative talk dominated by Limbaugh.

Franken isn’t afraid of getting into the serious policy weeds, though he says he remains a funny guy around the office.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.