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Plugged into the Zeitgeist

Brian Roberts is the chairman and CEO of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company with about 21 million customers receiving television channels, the Internet, voice-over-Internet protocol and more. In the first of two parts, Roberts discusses the competitive digital landscape. Next week: buying into MGM, and how Comcast makes decisions.

Q: Regarding Comcast’s growth, how big is too big?

A: You have to look at the marketplace that you compete in. When you see SBC proposing to buy AT&T and having just bought AT&T Wireless, and you see Verizon, and you look at News Corp.’s purchasing control of DirecTV after Viacom buys CBS, you keep going down the list. There’s a lot of competition, and you have to focus on each individual business line. In our case, we have more competition coming at us than at any time in our history. We are innovating with high-speed data a whole new line of business that could be as large as 25% of the company shortly. Cable helped to pioneer and grow broadband in this country. In content, we’re relatively small. The government has heretofore set a standard in cable television or multichannel video, limiting to 30% of the number of homes that could be serviced by one company. The court threw that out as too confiscatory, saying it should be reviewed to be a different number or a different standard or just leave the antitrust laws to be the standard. We’re well below 30%, so I like to think there’s lots of room for growth.

Q: Ten years ago, John Malone (of Liberty Media) was called “Darth Vader.” How have you avoided that perception despite the fact that your enterprises are arguably much more powerful than Dr. Malone’s were?

A: Times have changed by a lot. In 1992, the government regulated many aspects of the video business and, in doing so, created meaningful competition. I’m not sure I ever agreed with the characterization of John Malone, but leave that for historians because I parenthetically would say I think cable, in that era, was the liberator of television.

Q: In the early 1990s, the Baby Bells formed unsuccessful consortia with entertainment industry content providers. What are the parallels between those efforts and the current moves by Verizon and SBC?

A: I do think that there’s a certain inevitability that as the networks can all go digital, there continues to be a convergence between television, telephone and computers. Each of the various companies have their own strengths and weaknesses. Comcast is pretty excited about our leadership position in driving that convergence. It’s hard for me to totally comment on the Bell strategy since right now they’re selling satellite dishes aggressively, which would suggest that it’s a bit off into the future as to when their network can actually have the full capability, if ever, to offer robust video and high-definition television and the like. But we have plenty of competition in cable today. What has emerged since the early ’90s are two national providers of satellite programming, DirecTV and EchoStar, who do a fantastic and aggressive job of competing and have had real inroads in multichannel video.

Q: Comcast is already offering VOIP. What might come next?

A: We’re trying to offer, for instance, unified messaging so you get your voicemail, your email, all on your TV screen or on your Comcast high-speed Internet homepage. We hope to have video chat. Video email is already up and running and, some day, videophone. We’re looking to add the new digital technology to a very traditional plain old telephone business, to bring it into the 21st century.

Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.

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