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The cable television industry has significantly* increased the amount it spends to sway opinion in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission since 1998, according to a new Center for Public Integrity analysis.

The industry spent more than $10 million* on lobbying in 1999 compared with more than $15 million* in 2003, a jump of 50 percent*, according to records. All told, the industry spent more than $88 million* on lobbying from 1998 through mid-2004.

The cable television industry also spent $20.5 million on political campaigns since 1998 and sponsored 127 trips for members, family and staff of the two congressional committees that oversee the industry from 2000 through the first quarter of 2004 at a cost of $225,670.

In addition to contributions, lobbying and junkets, the Center also analyzed employment patterns of former FCC staff and senior employees of the House and Senate commerce committees. Researchers identified 16 former senior government officials who went to work for the cable industry since 1996.

The top spenders on lobbying among cable systems are:

  • The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable industry’s representative in Washington is first, spending more than $32 million.*
  • Time Warner Inc. is second* at more than $27 million*, which includes spending from non-cable divisions of the media conglomerate. Time Warner is the nation’s second largest cable systems operator, with nearly 11 million subscribers. Its holdings also include several cable television networks, such as news channel CNN.
  • Third is Comcast, the nation’s largest cable television company with 21.5 million subscribers, at more than $10 million.*

The most important issues facing the cable industry deal mostly with staving off federal regulation. The industry is fighting to keep broadband Internet service free from similar “common carrier” rules that affect telephone companies. The industry is also fighting a proposal that would require them to carry multiple digital broadcast signals on their systems from a single broadcaster and is in the midst of a massive lobbying effort to snuff out attempts to require that channels be made available on an “a la carte” basis rather than in tiers.

While cable television is still by far the most popular means of receiving video programming, direct broadcast satellite has become a legitimate competitor. The DirecTV group is now the second largest provider of pay-television service with 11.6 million subscribers. EchoStar Communication Corp. ranks fourth behind Time Warner with 8.8 million customers.

These two companies have also become big Washington influence players. DirecTV and Echostar collectively spent more than $10 million* on lobbying and $2.2 million on campaign contributions since 1998. DirecTV, controlled by News Corp., spent more than $6 million* on lobbying, while EchoStar spent about $4 million.*

The partisan preference of the cable television industry skews Democratic. Contributions were split 52.5 percent for Democratic candidates and party organizations and 47.2 percent for Republicans.

Time Warner is the top contributor in the sector at $8.2 million. Comcast is a distant second with $3.2 million and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association is third with $3.1 million.

The top recipient of cable contributions is President George W. Bush at $375,000. Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent, is second at $323,000, while Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, was third at $224,000.

The cable industry is also a frequent sponsor of trips for members, family and staff of the two congressional committees that regulate the industry – the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The NCTA, which puts particular emphasis on its annual trade show, is far and away the cable industry’s largest underwriter of travel for members of those committees; in fact, it is No. 1 in the communications industry as a whole.

(The NCTA also spent $192,609 on 102 trips over an eight-year period flying FCC commissioners and staff to various events, according to a 2003 Center study. The practice all but stopped due to congressional pressure following the Center’s report.)

Second for spending on congressional travel was Time Warner with 16 trips worth $22,495. Comcast was a distant third with $2,810 worth of trips.

According to the survey, the most-well-traveled congressional office—with 21 trips valued at $38,037—was that of Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the outgoing former chairman of the House commerce committee. Second, with 12 trips valued at $15,514 was the office of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), a member of the Subcommittee on Communications of the Senate commerce committee.

Among former government officials now working for the cable industry, perhaps the most well known is Victoria “Torie” Clarke. Clarke was the Pentagon spokeswoman during the most recent Iraq war and is widely credited with creating the “embedding” system of attaching reporters to troops in the field. Clarke, who had previously served as chief spokeswoman for the NCTA, took a job with Comcast as senior adviser for communications and government affairs.

One of the top cable lobbyists in Washington is Daniel Brenner, senior vice president for law and regulatory policy with the NCTA. Brenner was senior legal adviser to former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler from 1981 to 1986.

Among Time Warner’s heavy-hitting lobbyists is Susan Brophy, who was director of congressional relations for the Clinton-Gore transition team, and then deputy director of legislative affairs at the White House. She joined Time Warner as senior vice president of domestic policy in 2001 and now serves as vice president for global public policy.

As for satellite broadcasters, DirecTV hired Susan Eid this year as vice president of government relations. Eid was senior legal adviser to FCC Chairman Michael Powell before joining DirecTV.

The study is part of the Center’s ongoing examination of the companies that control the nation’s airwaves, telephone and cable lines and the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend to influence policies that affect how electronic communications are regulated in the United States. The survey took roughly eight months and involved the work of as many as a dozen researchers.

Note to readers: This story has been reposted. Since the report was originally released, the Center for Public Integrity has changed the way it calculates lobbying expenditures to reflect a more stringent methodology for determining the total amounts. The change was made to correct the potential overstatement of totals. Figures or relevant text that have been changed are indicated with asterisks. (2/28/2006)

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John Dunbar worked for 15 years at the Center for Public Integrity, serving as its CEO from 2016 to 2018.