Comcast's Roberts applauds Apple's ingenuity

DirecTV chairman Michael White may be the first to downplay hype around the elusive Apple TV that may or may not be unveiled later this month and is causing a boatload of angst and anticipation in the media world. Content providers who rake in billions of dollars in subscription fees from his company and others aren’t likely to put the current model at risk, White said at a conference in Gotham on Friday.

Speaking just before White, Comcast chairman Brian Roberts applauded Apple for getting people to buy everything it makes and said of the TV, “I am kind of looking forward to learning more, like everyone else.”

White also said it’s logical to merge DirecTV and Charlie Ergen’s smaller Dish Network into one big satcaster. But he said it’s probably a non-starter “at least with the current administration” given the size of a combined company — raising the flag of an attempt at a deal under a Republican administration.

Rumors have been flying fast and furious for weeks that Apple may unwrap a new operating system for the Apple TV set-top box — although not the actual TVs — at the World Developers Conference in San Francisco June 11-15. The idea is that the TV may debut late this year and start rolling out sometime in the first half of 2013.

The looming fear is of a Web-connected TV that can bypass cable and satellite providers to bring content directly to consumers.

“They are going to launch something, maybe in the next two weeks…but I don’t see media companies saying, ‘You can stream things in bundles over the Internet,'” White said at Sanford C. Bernstein’s Strategic Decisions confab. “Typically with technology, it smashes the cost structure in some new way, (but) with content costs, rights fees and the cost of spectrum, it’s hard to se (it) obsoleting our technology.”

White doubts “Apple’s interface will be so much better than DirecTV’s” that people will be willing to pay for an extra box — since they’ll likely still keep the one from their satellite or cable provider.

Roberts said he hopes consumers “want our interface, but if they want Apple’s interface,” he doesn’t want to drive them away. He noted that the new TVs would likely still need broadband access, which Comcast supplies.

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