Comcast feels strategically complete

Top execs promise NBC Uni management long leash

NEW YORK -- "I feel that we have now achieved the position I would like the company to have," Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said here Monday in discussing the benefits of the deal to acquire 51% of NBC Universal.

Speaking during the crowded opening session of the 37th annual UBS Global Media & Communications Conference, he said he has often gotten the question if he feels strategically complete, and now he does.

"As Comcast, we're looking to evolve" to be at the center of the continued quest by consumers to get content whenever and wherever they want, Roberts explained his belief in the benefits of owning both content and distribution assets.

A 4G wireless network rollout via Clearwire, in which Comcast and other distributors have a stake, is also helping the firm's positioning in the changing media world, Roberts argued.

Comcast COO Steve Burke, who joined his boss and CFO Michael Angelakis on the UBS stage, confirmed what long-time Comcast watchers had predicted, namely that the Philadelphia-based company will take a decentralized approach to managing the content company. "We are not going to run NBC Universal," he said. NBC Uni CEO Jeff Zucker and his team will.

Roberts also lauded many of the brand and other managers at NBC Uni as strong executives that have "impressed" him.

Asked about the NBC network, Burke said Comcast never considered selling it as it is "integral" to the NBC Uni business, which cross-promotes networks, for example. Also, the network business may improve in the future amid increasing talk of retransmission fee payments. Plus, while NBC currently is the fourth-ranked network, such rankings tend to be cyclical, so there is room for upside, he added.

It would be "very simplistic" to suggest that NBC could be turned into a cable network under Comcast's leadership, Burke said when pressed on one rumor surrounding his firm's plans for the network. "The broadcast model broadly defined...is a model that works well (and) that we hopefully can make work better."

Burke and Roberts added that the firm doesn't plan to sell or otherwise get rid of the NBC affiliated TV stations, which add to local and public trust and ensure reach. "It's hard to imagine a network without its stations," Burke said.

Asked about the Universal studio and its recent weakness, Burke said the film business is always an up-and-down business, and Universal is hopefully on the up-swing after recent changes led by studio boss Ron Meyer.

Meanwhile, the DVD market has been under pressure longer-term, but Comcast's VOD and other offers could be "helpful" here, Burke said.

Roberts on Monday emphasized that "we still love the cable business" amid investor concerns that the big NBC Uni content play could be interpreted as a snub of Comcast's traditional business. "This (deal) will give us a chance to grow better in both."

Plus, "content absolutely can benefit distribution" thanks to "expanded on-demand content and more," Roberts added.

Burke echoed his belief in the benefits of owning content and distribution, arguing they simply depend on managing things well.

He also once again predicted many opportunities to try new offers and business models once Comcast owns a majority of NBC Uni. Out of 100 things, "20 or 30 will work" and have the potential to make a real impact, Burke said.

Roberts once again lauded NBC Uni's broad and diversified portfolio of assets, but highlighted that the cable networks are clearly the crown jewel. Not only is advertising at a low and is likely to rise from here, but they also have two predictable revenue streams, he said.

The worst-performing NBC Universal channel makes more money than three Comcast networks combined, according to Roberts, who predicted that NBC Sports guru Dick Ebersol can add production value and more to Golf Channel, for example.

Roberts also pointed out what he argued is an under-appreciated element of the NBC Uni deal -- the fact that Comcast got a $7.25 billion valuation on its own cable networks, for which the firm never got credit from investors, CFO Michael Angelakis argued here Monday.

UBS media and entertainment head banker Aryeh Bourkoff introduced Roberts by saying he first met him about 15 years ago when Comcast had only 3 million cable subscribers.

Bourkoff called him "incredibly ambitious," "personable," "focused" and "very disciplined."

The UBS gathering is the longest-running media investor conference on Wall Street.

Robert Wolf, chairman and CEO of UBS Americas, said in his welcome remarks Monday that with recent deals, such as Comcast-NBC Uni and Disney's play for Marvel, the industry has kicked off what is already the third-largest media deal wave since the 1980s, and more is likely to come.

He also lauded this year's conference agenda for having its strongest CEO lineup ever.

Zucker will close the first day of the UBS gathering with an appearance Monday afternoon.

Add before Roberts saying he still loves the cable biz: Roberts on Monday also said that thanks to the deal's advantageous structure, Comcast will only spend about $5 billion on a net basis to get51% in NBC Uni and then gets 50% of the potential value upside.
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