In Q&A, Brian Roberts pledges investment, patience

When Comcast Corp. chief Brian Roberts was in the process of deciding whether or not to make a run at NBC Universal, Peter Chernin gave him a simple piece of advice: “Don’t do this deal if you can’t fall in love with NBC.”

Roberts recounted that story on Tuesday during a wide-ranging Q&A with Chernin held as part of the Cable Show confab at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Roberts told the crowd that he has heeded the advice from his longtime friend, who served as a consultant for Comcast on the NBC U deal. Today, as the merger wends through the regulatory approval process, Comcast stands ready to invest big bucks in rehabilitating the mothership NBC broadcast network.

“It’s going to require some risk, some investment and some patience. We signed up for that,” Roberts said. “We are coming into the business with an expectation to invest.”

Chernin, the former News Corp. prexy who now heads Chernin Entertainment and Chernin Group investment shingle, pressed Roberts on the culture clash issue that has bedeviled so many mega corporate mergers. Roberts noted that his longtime No. 2, Comcast prexy Steve Burke, has deep experience in showbiz and media from his tenure at Disney prior to joining Comcast.

“We’re not going to try to ‘Comcast-ize’ NBC Universal. There should be distinct cultures at NBC Universal,” Roberts said. “Each brand (within NBC U) has its own culture.”

Roberts gave the troops at NBC News reason to smile, as he noted that “the single most awesome asset that comes in this deal is NBC News.”

In remarks that may well have been directed to the Washington regulators who are at present scrutinzing the merger, Roberts stressed that Comcast was committed to preserving NBC’s worldwide newsgathering operation and shielding it from the cost-cutting pressures that it faced under General Electric. Comcast will take on 51% control of NBC U from GE under the deal the sides reached last December.

With the economy rebounding and the TV advertising market picking up renewed steam, Roberts asserted: “I feel better about the decision to do NBC Universal deal today that I did five months ago.”

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, has been eager to expand its business into Hollywood and content-producing realm for years. Roberts said that the company erred in decades past by not moving more aggressively when cable programming was in its infancy. The company lost out on a chance to own a stake in Discovery Communications, among other lucrative programming ventures, Roberts noted.

“We didn’t pick up on content early enough,” he said. “We were there at the ground floor (of cable). We’re starting later in content. It would be a very different company today if we’d done that 20 years ago.”

Before the Q&A sesh, which was co-sponsored by the Hollywood Radio and TV Society, Roberts talked up the news Cocmast announced Tuesday of the addition of some 9,000 movies to its On Demand VOD platform. Roberts asserted that Comcast’s various on-demand platforms have generated some 350 million views a month, with about 75% of Comcast digital subscribers using the on-demand service about 20-25 times a month.

Roberts and Burke have emphasized that they aim to use NBC U content to drive innovations in on demand and broadband distribution of content, as part of the company’s strategy of extending Comcast’s reach well beyond cable wires by providing as much content to consumers on as many different platforms as possible.

“It’s a big deal and I think it’s going to get to be an even bigger deal,” Roberts said of the growth in on-demand and online viewing.

Roberts said Comcast will unveil on Wednesday an iPad application. He didn’t get specific, but it’s understood that the app will work as a remote control and navigation device that allows a user’s set-top box to communicate with the Internet. There’s been much chatter about Apple eyeing a subscription TV package tied to the iPad that would compete with cable and satellite operators. Roberts gave no indication that he sees the iPad as a threat, calling it a device “that looks to be a fabulous bridge between the TV and the computer.”

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