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A competitive Comcast

Last week, Variety discussed the competitive landscape of digital television, telephone and the Internet with Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast Corporation. This week, the conversation concludes with remarks about his company’s entrepreneurialsm and growth. Roberts’ initial response refers to Comcast’s participation in the consortium that purchased MGM.

Q: How do decisions get made at Comcast? How freewheeling or bureaucratic is the chain of command?

A: A good example was Sony-MGM. We made the deal with Sony to have a relationship should they buy MGM. Ultimately, we joined their effort to buy MGM in less than a week, and really over a weekend – Labor Day weekend. I’m very proud that the company is still able to be fleet of foot, because sometimes that’s the way opportunities present themselves.

Q: Bill Gates and Microsoft helped catalyze broadband growth by investing in Comcast. How did that happen?

A: I remember in, I think it was 1997, visiting Microsoft with a delegation from the cable industry, and we put up one slide only. That slide showed the percentage of homes that were being rebuilt with fiber optics. It showed two-thirds. That was where cable was. Bill said, “I’m amazed it’s that high. I had no idea.” We said, “Well, that’s because of the competition from satellite.” Later that night at a dinner that he hosted, he said, “How can I be more supportive?” That’s when I made a joke and said, “Well, why don’t you buy 10 percent of every cable company in the room tonight?” Someone turned to him and said, “Well, gee, Bill, what’s your next vacation?” to break the awkwardness. He said, “Well, I’m going tomorrow with Paul Allen to the Amazon to look at some rare chimpanzees in my helicopter.” He then looked right back at me and said, “How much would it cost?” Thirty days later he invested a billion dollars in Comcast with no Board seat and no voting securities; he simply wanted to help broadband happen. Fast forward five years later. High-speed data is now a huge success. No one thought cable modems would ever work to this great extent. We have over seven million high-speed data customers now and growing – the fastest part of our company in that short period of time.

Q. What’s that billion dollars worth today?

A. At least four.

Q. You know what? Mr. Gates should have paid for dinner.

A. Exactly. He came back to the same group at the Consumer Electronics Show three years ago and said, “I am more excited about cable because of Internet Protocol than I was in 1997 when Brian and I had dinner.” So, the exciting part of our business, from my standpoint, is that we have made the investment. Now it’s a question of trying to deliver new products. We’re not still a hundred billion or two hundred billion away from the finish line like some others. We are able to have four thousand TV shows On Demand right now, and we hope to be up to ten thousand by the end of the year. We’re able to offer what was a two megabyte service that’s now doubled in speed to four megabytes, and we haven’t raised anybody’s price. We’re growing at over thirty thousand new customers a week.

Q: Your aim is to keep Comcast nimble. How do you do it?

A: I view it as my number one job to keep the culture of Comcast entrepreneurial with employees feeling like owners and empowered to make decisions that affect the customers without going through a lot of bureaucracy, and to have a feeling of appreciation like you have in a family and yet at the same time, use the scale to help innovate and to have the capital structure to take risk.

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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