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Franken taps public anger in stand against Comcast-Time Warner deal

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Sen. Al Franken
U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee December 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Too big. Too powerful. Out of touch. Sen. Al Franken took to CNN recently to rail on an American institution. But it wasn't Congress. It was cable TV.

"We need more competition, not less," said Franken, who began raising questions about cable giant Comcast's plan to buy its largest competitor, Time Warner, hours after the deal was announced. "This is going exactly in the wrong direction. Consumers, I am very concerned, are going to pay higher bills and get even worse service and less choice."

If the $45 billion merger goes through, it would create the country's largest cable company, reaching nearly one in three households. The company would also have a major position in broadband internet and TV production. The deal, however, needs federal approval, and Franken has established himself quickly as one of this deal's critics. 

For Franken, a former TV comedy writer, opposing this deal is good policy and perhaps even better politics. The Minnesota Democrat even took the unusual step of emailing his re-election campaign's very large list of supporters to raise concerns about a Comcast-Time Warner merger. 

Franken called the mailing an antidote to Comcast's enormous clout in Washington, where the head of the Federal Communications Commission is a former cable industry lobbyist. "Comcast has sort of tried to put their tentacles into the regulatory agencies, and I want to make sure they're hearing from the public," said Franken.

But there's something else going on, says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. Franken, he said, "is engaging in kind of stealth campaigning by taking on the Comcast merger." 

Franken won election in 2008 by the narrowest of margins and has spent much of the last five years in the Senate trying to overhaul his image from partisan funnyman to serious, policy oriented lawmaker, said Jacobs.

Republicans were outraged after Franken was declared the victor after a lengthy recount.

Comcast, however, could help Franken connect with GOP voters in the upcoming election. 

Cable Giant Comcast To Acquire Time Warner Cable
Gregory Bristol, a customer associate, speaks with a customer on the phone at a Comcast cable call center on February 13, 2014 in Miramar, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Issues such as cable TV competition and privacy enjoy broad public support and provide a way for Franken to show independent and Republican voters that he's working for them, Jacobs added. 

Republican politicians, who often criticize Franken's positions and statements, have stayed quiet on the Comcast issue.

That might be because Comcast and Time Warner Cable are among the most hated companies in the country and many people are likely to be happy to see politicians beat up on them up a little.

Time Warner and Comcast rank last and next to last in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks what Americans think of companies and brands.

"As consumers, we don't mind paying a fairly steep price for something if we feel like we're really getting an enormous value for that particular cost. But when you pay a high price and on top of it you perceive that there's lots of problems," said David VanAmburg, the index's managing director. "That's sort of a deadly combination to an industry."

Airlines and social media companies -- another Franken target -- are the only other companies that come close to the cable industry in customer dissatisfaction.

While Comcast may not be beloved, it holds enormous sway over the entertainment industry through its control of NBC (a merger Franken also opposed) and the access other companies need to Comcast's channels. The merger would make it even more dominant. 

Franken felt strongly enough about the Comcast-Time Warner plan, though, that he made it through a Washington snowstorm to banter with CNN host Jake Tapper in a rare national interview.

Franken told Tapper that he's a Comcast subscriber but that he'd like to have more choices. 

"Are you comfortable telling me how your service is?" Tapper asked? 

"Only if you tell me how your Comscast service is," Franken responded.

"I had Comcast, we got rid of it. I didn't find the service satisfactory. How about you?" Tapper asked. 

Franken laughed. "No comment," he said.