Roberts keen on PPV pic preems

NEW YORK — Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts wants to experiment with scheduling theatrical movies on pay-per-view simultaneously with their debut in the multiplexes.

Speaking off the cuff after his formal Q&A at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, Roberts cited the remarks of Disney’s Bob Iger last month proposing the release of a movie on video/DVD at the same time as it hits U.S. theaters.

In the Q&A, Roberts told a packed auditorium that Comcast, the biggest cable operator in the country with 21 million subscribers, is grossing a robust $100 million per quarter on PPV movies. For each of the past seven quarters, he said, pay-per-view has delivered revenue increases of more than 20%.

Movies have become Comcast’s big revenue driver on PPV and video-on-demand, Roberts said. The most significant movie deal Comcast has engineered in the last six months, he said, is the contract with John Malone’s Starz Encore pay TV operation.

To subscribers who pay a separate monthly fee for Starz!, Encore delivers 500 additional free movies per month. Comcast customers who don’t buy Starz! still have access to 300 free Encore movies a month.

And for the 60% of Comcast subs who have chosen to stay in analog, refusing to buy a digital box, Roberts is offering 100 free movies from the Encore inventory.

Comcast’s goal is to hook the refuseniks into springing for the digital box so they can get an on-demand package consisting not only of 300 theatrical movies but 600 different TV shows a month, 90% of which come at no extra cost.

Roberts said his customers placed 125 million VOD orders last month and the yearly total could be 1.5 billion. These numbers are certain to rise, he added, citing the increasing popularity of elaborate home theaters. If a family has ponied up thousands of dollars for a home theater, they’d be unlikely to balk at a jacked-up fee if they could call up on PPV video-on-demand a brand-new movie that’s still in the theaters.

Roberts said sports programs are becoming another winner for VOD. More than 400 sports shows turn up every year, led by 15-minute highlights of each National Football League game from Sunday and Monday — a package that’s available for the entire week on VOD.

As for the broadcast networks, he said they can forget about getting cash payment from Comcast for the signals of the local O&Os and affiliates.

That’s a non-starter: “The judgment of the American public is that free TV should stay free,” he said. Comcast already has long-term distribution agreements with all the broadcasters that contain no mention of cash for carriage, he added.

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