Comcast CEO Hears Labor, MSNBC, Other Criticism at Annual Meeting

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Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts faced criticism about labor conditions and MSNBC's liberal primetime hosts during the company's annual meeting Thursday, even though one speaker late in the meeting lauded MSNBC's work.

He also got questions about the company's controversial hiring of former FCC commissioner Margaret Attwell Baker, who had voted for Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal, as senior vp of government affairs, NBCUniversal, his family's voting control at the cable giant and a potential relocation of the firm.

The meeting was at one point also interrupted by a "We are the 99 percent!" chant from a group of people. Several dozen protesters promoting similar Occupy Wall Street themes also chanted last month at the annual shareholder meeting of General Electric, which holds a minority stake in NBCUniversal.

During his formal remarks late in the meeting, which lasted about 80 minutes, Roberts said there were "early accomplishments" in the integration of NBCUniversal. He also encouraged shareholders to see Snow White and the Huntsman in movie theaters this weekend and tune into the Summer Olympics in London on NBC.

During the long question-and-answer session, the company said that the Atwell Baker hire involved "nothing inappropriate"  and believes "noone believes anything inappropriate was done" in her hire. Discussions with her began after the deal approval, they added. All inquiries in this case, including ones from a Congressional committee, have been responded to by Comcast, the company said without explaining if all probes have been closed.

Meanwhile, several staffers from Chicago, where the labor contract of workers is up, spoke of long work hours, discrimination against union supporters and technicians' being threatened by gang violence and robbed at gun point in Comcast's cable system of the year. One staffer spoke of Comcast's "moral sins" and argued it is no shame to be robbed in Chicago, "but it's shameful to be robbed by your employer." Added another one: "I think it is wrong to mistreat your workers."

Roberts offered that he and his team would stay behind after the meeting to talk to them more to better understand their needs. He also said he appreciates their work, even if they may not always agree on all business issues.

Roberts also got questions about Comcast's size and its contributions to the community. One speaker suggested that Comcast is not paying a fair share of taxes while schools in its hometown Philadelphia are struggling. Roberts said that the company had a tax rate of 38 percent last year. "We' are very proud of the company and how we did," he said. "We had a terrific 2011" and a good start to 2012. He added that the company also continues working with educational institutions on various initiatives.

Several angry people at the annual meeting asked if Comcast is taking advantage of a Delaware tax loophole. And one cited a rumor that the company may relocate to Delaware. Executives said the cable giant is taking minimal advantage of Delaware tax rules simply by operating investment units that don't make money for the company there in the state's friendly tax environment that is ideal for such operations.

As has happened in recent years at the shareholder meeting of NBCUniversal's owner, which previously was General Electric, critics once again said MSNBC primetime hosts are anti-Republicans. Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow were mentioned as was Ed Schultz who was slammed for having said that former vice president Dick Cheney should die.

One speaker criticized the edition of Al Sharpton, whom he called "a proven liar," arguing that he won't strengthen the news network's brand. Said the speaker" MSNBC uses "shareholder-financed air time," but continues to have "anemic ratings" and "misguided ideologues" running the channel.

Another unidentified speaker said that MSNBC's hosts were "hate mongers and smear merchants."

Late in the meeting though, a woman lauded MSNBC and thanked the company for putting Maddow on the air and putting the spotlight on women issues.

One woman spoke about a shareholder proposal that called for an independent chairman, which critics of Roberts' high voting percentage at Comcast have said would enhance the firm's shareholder focus. Roberts said "we respect your proposal," but pointed to the cable giant's previous argument that such a move was not necessary.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai

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