Only AFL-CIO Rains on Comcast’s Parade

Annual meeting goes swimmingly, with one exception

PHILADELPHIA—Comcast's annual shareholders meeting proved to be a speedy affair on Wednesday. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the gathering gave Brian L. Roberts, the company's chairman and CEO, a chance to flaunt the company's 2010 highlights with next to no inquiry from shareholders—though there was a bold statement from labor unions interested in taking the company to task over its compensation policy.

Roberts touted Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal last January as the "headline of the year" and said that the company has already seen "early successes only about 120 days into operations" following the merger. The most notable recent success for NBC is The Voice, a reality television singing competition, that garnered 12.6 million viewers during its second episode last week and is shaping up to be a desperately needed hit for NBC, which lags behind its three network peers in ratings. 

Comcast shareholders are either a satisfied group or overly complacent. During the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, only one shareholder stepped up to the microphone, and then with what turned out to be an administrative question about the format of the proxy statement. When Roberts asked if there were any further questions, silence fell over the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

One group that did make its voice heard during the meeting was the AFL-CIO. The federation of labor unions presented a shareholder proposal during the meeting that would require the appointment of an independent director, someone who has not previously served as an executive officer of the company, to serve as the board’s chairman. Currently, Roberts—the son of Comcast co-founder Ralph Roberts—holds the position in addition to his role as CEO.

Frank Snyder, the secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, spoke for the federation at the meeting, representing, as Snyder described it to Adweek, "the cable guy."  Snyder told attendees "an independent board chair is needed to bring a critical perspective to the company’s compensation policies and practices" and asserted that shareholders retain unequal voting rights because Comcast is "effectively controlled by the Roberts family." 

Brian Roberts was recently ranked No. 6 on CNN Money’s list of the 20 highest paid CEO’s, thanks to his having been paid $28.2 million. Snyder pointed out that Roberts would receive a $25 million severance package in the case of termination without cause, but he "would need to fire himself."

"Brian Roberts is his own boss and can be his own boss for as long as he wants," Snyder told Adweek.

Unsurprisingly, the AFL-CIO's proposal did not pass the shareholder vote. Following the meeting, Snyder said, "The reality is that this was a shareholder meeting for a billion dollar corporation that lasted 36 minutes. There is a problem at every level with holding the company accountable."

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