Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts said he’s hopeful the dialogue around race and diversity spurred by the death of George Floyd “can lead to some real change that has been lacking over the years in this country” and that “Comcast can play a constructive role.”
Speaking at the annual meeting of shareholders, held virtually Wednesday morning, he said the cable and entertainment giant will have a number of initiatives “in the months and years and weeks ahead” and stressed the value of the conglom’s news coverage – and increasing physical risks to news teams – and its push since 2011 to expand inexpensive home internet to underserved communities, reaching 8 million to date.
“We are very aware of the moment, as everyone is … to reimagine all forms of our society and our corporate practices,” said Roberts.
That civic unrest comes as the global coronavirus pandemic has created a tremendous amount of financial strain on individuals and companies around the globe, he said. He noted that the company’s broadband businesses had its best quarter in 12 years, while television and film production has been “under duress” – basically shuttered. Theme parks, which have been an increasingly significant financial contributor, are also closed, but slated to reopen in Orlando at least, this month.
He said Sky has been really hard hit by sports cancellelations and delays worldwide but also there things are looking up with soccer back in Germany and starting up shortly in the U.K. and Italy.
During a Q&A, Roberts returned to the unrest in major cities and said it’s “truly hearbreaking and tragic that in 2020 we find our society still struggling with issues that are core to huma dignity. Racism and violence have no place and cannot be tolerated,”he said, noting “news coverag risks … to our journalists” and saying that news coverage — by NBC and MSNBC — continues to educatte our society.” He was reponding to a question by a shareholder questioning the objectivity of MSNBC’s coverage of “looting and rioting.”
More than 100 news organization have asked Minnesota to curb aggressive against local and national news media, which have been targeted by police as they covered protests there and in other cities from Louisville to Washington, D.C.
Asked about new streaming service Peacock, Roberts said, the company is “excited” about the response, but it is still very, very early days. Peacock launched in April for Comcast subscribers and goes nationwide in July with a free and a subscription offering
The company presented its regular resolutions to approve director elections and executive pay, and two shareholder proposals asking for greater transparency — one, that’s been on the agenda for the past several years — asks for an independent inquiry and report on “failing to prevent sexual harrassment claims.”
Natasha Lamb of Arjuna Capital noted reputational damanage following the company’s firing of former Today host Matt Lauer and more recent issues surrounding other talent as well as managers at call centers. Comcast “insists on conducting internal investigations led by management,” Lamb said on the call, but “it is clear that transparent approach is essential.” She said that “ousting NBC News chief Andy Lack” was encouraging but the company “still has a ways to go.”
Lack exited the company in a recent broad restructuring and streamlining of NBCUniversal’s businesss.
The second shareholder proposal asked the company to report its total annual spend on lobbying. Comcast forked out over $30 million on lobbying at the federal level in 2017 and 2018, according to public documents, “the highest sum in the telecommunications sector and 4th highest sum of all reporting US companies,” the proposal said. Jeffrey Perkins, executive director of Friends Fiduciary, a nonprofit for socially responsible investment management, noted on the call that Comcast spends significant additional cash to support industry organizations that also lobby and that there’s little information available on how much it spends at the state level.
“This information could be easily provided to shareholders,” Perkins said.
Institutional Shareholders Services, or ISS, which advises stockholders how to vote on meeting proposals, had recommended a ‘yes’ vote on the lobbying report and a ‘no’ vote on the harrasment inquiry, saying “the company has conducted an investigation and made appropriate changes to company policies and procedures.”
During the Q&A, a shareholder also questioned CEO pay as Roberts’ package last year came in at 461 times the pay of an average employee for 2019. Executive pay is a hotbutton issue at media and entertainment companies. Roberts said directors, who set pay “look at all the compensation metrics at our company and other companies in our industry … to find ways to incentivize executives and employees.
Shareholders approved the company’s proposals and voted down the shareholder proposals. Comcast will disclose the precise vote tallies in a subsequent SEC filing.