Comcast CEO Looking for 'Longer-Term, Thoughtful' Turnaround of NBCUniversal

Brian Roberts says he is hopeful that the NBC network will start making money over time, but emphasizes that NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt has "a very tough job."

NEW YORK -- Even though there are first examples of synergies, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts on Wednesday once again cautioned that it will take time to unlock the opportunities and value of NBCUniversal, in which the cable giant recently acquired a 51 percent stake.

"There is momentum," he told the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco.

"For four weeks [into the combination], I feel great. But I'm realistic. It is going to take years."

Roberts said "I think we have a tough job" overall before addressing the NBC broadcast network's situation. "We are in last place in the big four networks," he said. "That's going to take time. [NBC entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt who ran Showtime has a very tough job."

That echoed recent comments from new NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke that the turnaround of the NBC network would take years.

The fact that broadcasters are now getting retransmission fee payments from distributors is among the encouraging news for NBC, according to Roberts. "Where NBC today loses money, one can be hopeful that in the future that wouldn't be the case," he said without providing a time line.

"For the first time you could see some of the synergy" at the newly merged company in last week's and weekend's Golf Channel and NBC coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Roberts also highlighted. He pointed out cross-promotion between the two networks, which are now both part of NBCUniversal, such as the branding of NBC's coverage as "Golf Channel on NBC." That helped lead to "a high point for the ratings of the Golf Channel," Roberts said.

He mentioned cooperation between NBC's Today and E! on red carpet coverage of the Academy Awards as another example of early examples for collaboration and cross-pollination.

And he once again lauded NBCUniversal for performing better last year than expected at the time Comcast struck the deal.

But overall, he said Burke has "some runway to really make a longer-term, thoughtful turnaround of some wonderful brands and some wonderful businesses" at NBCUniversal.

Following the deal, Roberts also expects to add TV content from NBCUniversal to the "play now" feature on Comcast's Xfinity TV iPad app, which allows users to view content directly from their iPad.

Networks currently making available content for the feature for viewing at home or on the go, as long as a user is a Comcast cable subscriber, include HBO, Showtime, Starz, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network and BBC America.

"Oh, by the way, no NBCUniversal," Roberts said in discussing the feature at the Morgan Stanley investor conference. "I think we're going to fix that very soon."

He didn't provide timing guidance during his appearance, which was available via Webcast.

Among NBCUniversal's various other areas of upside is international growth as Roberts said his team is looking at giving it  much more of a global presence than it has today.

Asked about possible uses of Comcast cash beyond dividends and stock buybacks, Roberts reiterated that NBCUniversal deal-related costs should be limited. "We do have to buy GE out over time," he said. But he added: "That should be financeable out of the NBC balance sheet for the most part, if not entirely."

Asked how he feels as the rare industry player that owns both major content and distribution assets following the NBCUniversal deal, he said he feels even better about that now than a year ago. With an increase in the number of distribution platforms for content and retransmission consent fees strengthening content players, Roberts said owning NBCUniversal will allow Comcast to balance any headwinds in the traditional cable business.

Speaking of the cable business, Roberts said it may surprise people, but his biggest focus last year was not so much sealing the NBCUniversal deal, but having the right person in place to run the Comcast cable business, which has higher revenue than the content business.

With Burke leaving Comcast Cable to focus on his duties as NBCUniversal head, new cable business boss Neil Smit, who joined from Charter Communications about a year ago, has quickly helped improve Comcast's customer service and experience, Roberts said.

That will free up the firm to become "an innovation machine," he said.