NBCUni, Comcast Heads Call 'The Voice' the 'Most Exciting Event' Since Deal

 NBC

NEW YORK - Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke on Wednesday lauded what Roberts calls "early successes" in synergy between the cable giant and NBCUniversal, which it now controls, citing the strong early ratings of NBC's The Voice and the success of film releases Hop and Fast Five as examples of cross-marketing across Comcast and NBCUniversal properties. 

While the word "synergy" has often been associated with failed media mega-deals of the past, such as the AOL-Time Warner combination, Roberts said the premiere of NBC's The Voice was "maybe the most exciting event" for NBCUniversal this year, lauding its "critical and ratings success" that he argued prove what can happen when all parts of the companies "come together to support a program." Burke later said that The Voice could allow NBC to launch other shows around it, making it a key building block of the network's schedule.

He also pointed out the previously announced cross-promotion of the Golf Channel on NBC and the use of integrated campaigns for NHL content on both NBC and Versus, which has driven ratings, as examples of synergy.

On a quarterly earnings conference call Wednesday, Burke also said that NBCUniversal will this year spend $300 million more on NBC broadcast primetime and cable programming than last year. Roberts said that Comcast's overarching goal is to invest in the entertainment company - from NBC to local TV stations to boost news programs and cable networks to further strengthen their programming and brands - to build long-term value and make NBCUniversal "the premier destination for content creators."

He said he expects NBC primetime investment to rise by about $200 million this year compared to 2010. This is in large part due to last year's lower spending as Jay Leno's primetime show experiment was in the 10pm time slot on weeknights until early in 2010 and the network often ran repeats after the end of the show. NBC has been looking to rebuild the 10pm slot with scripted fare, and Wednesday's comments reaffirmed a commitment to improving ratings here. Burke said NBC has 21 TV pilots this year, about as many as last year. The real key to a turnaround is not so much increasing investment though, but making better shows, he said.

Roberts and Burke will go see NBC entertainment head Bob Greenblatt's first pilot slate ahead of the NBC upfront presentation, they said.

Roberts on Wednesday also once again emphasized that Comcast knows that the turnaround the NBC broadcast network. "We need to be patient," he said, adding that he is looking for "a long-term turnaround." It will take time to "return NBC to industry-level performance," he said. Burke on Wednesday reiterated that a turnaround could take several years, but said that even moving from the fourth to the third spot in the broadcast network ratings could add hundreds of millions of dollars to operating cash flow given a big gap between the NBC network and its stations and others in the industry.

Cable networks will see about $100 million in higher investment this year on new show development, according to Burke. Such spending can have a negative effect on overall financials in launch years, but be positive in following years if shows do well, he highlighted. He and Roberts said the cable networks and their strong recurring revenue are the top priority for NBCUniversal's management team given they are the biggest financial driver of the company. "These channels are performing very well, and we believe they will be even better positioned in the future," Roberts said. 

Asked about NBCUniversal's plans to spend on big sports rights like the Olympics and the NFL, Burke reiterated on Wednesday that "we are in business to make money" and "our approach is going to be disciplined." The Olympics and NFL are "two fantastic properties," and his company "would like to have" them, but "would like to make money." He said that money could come via advertising or a cable network to also benefit from higher affiliate fees. "At the end of the day, we are not going to do anything that doesn't have a business plan that pencils out," Burke said. He also said his company bid on the Pac-12 TV rights to the degree it felt it could. ESPN and Fox walked away with the deal.

Talking about the studio unit, Burke and Roberts said they plan to improve its performance, but are aware of the volatility inherent in the film business and the weak DVD market. Asked about the size of Universal's slate, Burke said it is "about right," adding the focus must be on making better movies.

After the late January completion of Comcast's acquisition of a 51 percent stake in NBCUniversal, Roberts said "we are encouraged that we had a seamless integration with no surprises." He also lauded Burke for having assembled a "world-class management team" at NBCUniversal as he has at Comcast's cable systems. "Today's results demonstrate the early momentum of our new and dynamic company," he said.

Discussing NBCUniversal's first-quarter results, Roberts said they show the early momentum of the combination. "Overall, we are generally pleased with NBCUniversal's first-quarter results," he said.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai

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