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NBCUniversal owner Comcast feels it has the assets needed to do well in the competitive media space, chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said on Wednesday in responding to a question about what Discovery’s $43 billion deal for AT&T’s WarnerMedia means for the competing conglomerate.
“What AT&T does sort of speaks for itself,” he said at the company’s virtual annual shareholder meeting. “We are very pleased with our assets, our talent, our culture, the strategy.” He added: “We think we have a unique company well-positioned to compete vigorously for talent, for customers and for growth in the years ahead.”
Nearly halfway through 2021, “we have great momentum across the company,” Roberts said in prepared remarks. “We are recovering quite well” from the coronavirus pandemic as the economy reopens, with “huge demand” for NBCUniversal’s Orlando theme park, where attendance is “hitting really 2019 levels on many days” amid “wonderful weather,” the Hollywood theme park reaching the maximum capacity in the early days of the reopening, and cinemas “reopening around the world.” He lauded the theatrical opening of F9 “to the best box office results since the pandemic in the markets where it opened” and said TV production is now “back to historical levels,” while emphasizing streaming service Peacock has had a “fantastic” start.
While 2020 was “one of the most challenging times” in memory, Roberts said that Comcast was helped through it by its continued innovation and “a culture that fosters collaboration.”
He also lauded the company’s progress in strengthening diversity and inclusion and combating injustice.
Asked about cord-cutting and the rise of streaming, Roberts said, “Our company saw this transition happening,” which is why Comcast Cable’s broadband services are central to the conglomerate and why the cable unit is also allowing subscribers to aggregate various video services.
At the meeting, like at last year’s event, a shareholder proposal was defeated — as is typically the case at companies where families have outsize voting power — that had called for an independent investigation and report on risks “posed by failing to prevent sexual harassment.” It cited, among other things, the firing of former Today host Matt Lauer and the exit of former NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy after a THR report on claims that he fostered a toxic culture.
Asked about the conglomerate’s executive pay and CEO pay ratio of 380:1, Roberts argued, “We do believe we have a very tailored plan” that ensures that “a vast majority of pay is tied to performance.”
Confronted with comments that argued Comcast’s news operations at times wrongly presented certain things as conspiracy theories or fake news, Roberts said: “We are very proud of NBC News, and they are committed to producing the highest quality of journalism across our platforms,” providing “a wonderful service” and discussing “if they believe they did something wrong.”
He said the same goes for Sky News. “I have always honored the pledge that we made when we bought NBCUniversal … that we would not interfere in the news operations” and similar ones made as part of the Sky deal, Roberts said, adding: “You are certainly entitled to your views.”
Questioned about Comcast staff’s return to offices amid continued vaccination progress, Roberts expressed his hope that “most employees” would be back at work “most days” in September.
Comcast CFO Michael Cavanagh told a recent investor conference that the company was happy with its collection of businesses, including NBCUniversal and European pay TV arm Sky, amid Wall Street debate about whether entertainment companies will need to boost their scale via deals after the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger unveiled last month. “We like our portfolio,” he said, explaining that the company has always looked at possible deals, but with a focus on whether they make strategic and financial sense. “We like the hand we have without M&A.”
While much talk centers around scale, the Comcast CFO argued that people often underestimate “the ability to execute” and “the ability to serve the creative community,” which at NBCU and Sky is “tremendous” as is the company’s content library. Overall, the conglomerate has “plenty of advantages to play our hand,” he concluded.
Asked about the scale of streaming service Peacock, Cavanagh said when Comcast acquires assets, “we do not take lightly” the need to operate well. “We can do what we need to do a variety of different ways” outside of acquisitions, including investing more in original content and partnering with others in international markets, he said.
At last year’s annual meeting, Roberts had addressed Comcast’s impact from, and reaction to, the novel coronavirus pandemic and social upheaval following the death of George Floyd. Back then, he acknowledged the “extraordinary time we are living in,” saying: “Our society has been challenged like never before.”
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