For regular viewers of “30 Rock” (a group that doubtless remains smaller than NBC would care to admit), the show has incorporated a savvy inside-baseball joke involving the network’s acquisition by a fictional Philadelphia-based entity known as Kabletown.
Kabletown with a K, according to the fake company’s bogus website, “Because K stands for the Kindness we show our customers, the Keen interest we take in their needs and because Cabletown with a C was already the name of a store that sold cable knit sweaters.”
Back in the real world, though, Comcast — the actual drab, boring Pennsylvania conglomerate poised to take control of the real NBC Universal — is looking better all the time.
Granted, while not as inherently corporate in a Bond villain way as General Electric (whose former CEO, Jack Welch, has not incidentally played himself, badly, on “30 Rock”), the Comcast gang seems tailor-made to engender distrust in Hollywood. Not only are they based outside traditional media strongholds in L.A. and Manhattan, but the company is run by Brian Roberts, who had the mantle passed down from his father Ralph; and Steve Burke, whose dad, Dan, was once the CEO of CapCities/ABC.
It’s normal to harbor qualms about (and perhaps feel a tinge of resentment toward) kids who go into the family business like Roberts and Burke. Showbiz, after all, is one of those delightfully subjective endeavors where positions are sometimes more readily inherited than earned, frequently demonstrating just how far an apple can be flung from a tree.
Those who work in concert with Comcast’s brain trust, however, invariably describe the pair as smart and determined — beginning with their conviction that relying exclusively on cable distribution in a rapidly shifting broadband world is a perilous configuration, prompting them to doggedly if methodically pursue a major content-generating alliance.
Roberts might have come across as wonky during his interview Tuesday with former News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin at The Cable Show, but it was hard not to leave with the impression that once the deal clears regulatory hurdles, NBC U will be in very good hands.
Roberts spoke about the need to “acknowledge that which you don’t know” regarding Hollywood and content production, and reiterated that he and Burke are “coming into the business with an expectation to invest.”
For all that, Chernin expressed bemusement at the culture clash that awaits him, as if Roberts still didn’t fully grasp what was about to hit him once forced to deal with fallout from MSNBC commentators or movies that trigger threatened boycotts, as “The Last Temptation of Christ” did.
Roberts sounded undaunted, citing the importance of providing editorial protection for franchises like NBC News and respecting creative choices that might not be his personal cup of tea. “We’re not going to try to Comcast-ize NBC Universal,” he said reassuringly.
Mostly, Comcast’s problems boil down to a question of image. Nobody really thinks about their cable provider, after all, until the bill goes up, or reception breaks down in the middle of an NFL playoff game.
It’s just the sort of dilemma, frankly, with which the creative folks who dreamt up “Kabletown” could probably help their new bosses out.
For starters, the company is pushing something called Xfinity, which charitably sounds like a movie that would star Vin Diesel. On its website, Comcast explains that Xfinity is “the new brand for Comcast’s technology platform, products, and services,” designed to offer customers “more choice, more control, more speed, and more HD than ever before.” Hey, I’m for all those things, but that still doesn’t explain what the creepy sci-fi name has to do with it.
In short, Comcast (or if you prefer, Kabletown) has all the tools to emerge as a hero in upcoming chapters of the NBC story; nevertheless, it’s going to be under the hot lights for a while in terms of its profile — and while management generally appears well prepared, the team might need a little work, in style if not substance, to get ready for its close-up.
Maybe the company could start by taking a page from one of the better-marketed sports leagues and adopt a pithier slogan — something like, “NBC Action: It’s Comcastic!”