In the cosmic scheme of things, it’s fitting that Comcast’s game-changing deal to acquire Time Warner Cable came almost 10 years to the day that the cable giant went public with its audacious $66 billion bid to acquire the Walt Disney Co.
Disney’s board, of course, quickly batted down the offer, made with much fanfare on Feb. 11, 2004. But the move put the media world on notice that the cable guys in Philadelphia, led by chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, had grand ambitions to grow the company well beyond its prime position as the nation’s largest cable operator.
A decade later, Comcast’s tentacles are spread throughout the world, from the breadth of the TV, film and digital content produced and distributed by NBCUniversal to the pay TV, broadband and wireless services that have become household utilities in the 21st century.
If all goes as planned, the $45.2 billion all-stock pact to swallow up Time Warner Cable, the nation’s No. 2 cable operator, will boost Comcast to about 30 million cable subscribers, up from about 22 million today, or just under 30% of cable TV subscribers. That’s about the same size Comcast reached at its previous peak in 2006, after a string of cable acquisitions (and prior to its 2011 purchase of NBCU).
But think about how much the global media landscape has changed in the past eight years — and how many more opportunities there are for a company as well endowed as Comcast. The sheer market share that the combined Comcast and TW Cable will command was enough to send media watchdog orgs into hysterics, understandably, even before the agreement was officially unveiled Feb. 13.
The flashing red light in the proposed transaction is the fact that the post-merger Comcast will be the Internet service provider to nearly one-third of U.S. broadband subscribers. This raises the specter of the company being able to dictate pricing for consumers and access terms for outside content providers. And that gatekeeper status is enhanced by the fact that Comcast has so much of its own content to offer from all the feathers in the Peacock’s plume.
The man at the center of the storm that will rage over the regulatory review of the deal is Roberts, scion of Comcast founder Ralph Roberts and the family that still controls the conglomerate’s voting shares.
On the surface, Roberts is an unlikely candidate for the title of Ruler of All Media, but that’s what he’s become. He’s a 1981 Wharton School grad, husband and father of three with a fondness for playing squash (his official bio notes he’s competed five times in Israel’s Maccabiah Games). After the NBCU deal was struck with General Electric, Roberts let it be known at a cable biz confab that he and his wife Aileen were fans of independent films.
Roberts grew up in the family business, serving his first internship in 1974 working on supermarket promotions for the company’s Muzak-distribution unit (which has since been sold). He worked as a cable installer and customer marketing exec in such unglamorous locales as Trenton, N.J., and Flint, Mich., and then served in the corporate ranks before being named president in 1990 and CEO in 2002.
Heritage dictated his ascent, but Roberts’ track record allowed him to shed the “boss’ son” stigma long ago. Comcast has grown exponentially on his watch (from $657 million in revenue in 1990 to $64 billion in 2013). He’s known internally as the wonk-in-chief who has pushed the company to stay on the leading edge of VOD, time-shifting and cloud-based technologies to offer new and better services to subscribers.
When he waxed poetic about the “very special” TW Cable deal in a conference call with reporters — after a long night of final deal wrangling — Roberts didn’t sound like he was reading from a talking-points memo. In his view, the marriage of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will lead to a world of faster Internet speeds and broader programming choices, across all platforms, for consumers.
“Our company is at the unique cross-
section of media and technology,” Roberts enthused. “The opportunity to innovate with products and services and customer experiences in our residential and business services is the prime motivator.”
Roberts has proven to be a shrewd operator, even as he maintains a nice-egghead-guy image. Just ask John Malone, who was charging hard to acquire TW Cable through Charter Communications. In keeping with the clubby tendencies of cable guys, Charter execs had had discussions with Comcast about partnering on a deal to carve up TW Cable.
As Charter’s pursuit grew more aggressive, after TW Cable rejected the company’s $132.50 per share offer as “grossly inadequate,” Comcast quietly became more cozy with the quarry. The deal came together in earnest inside of two weeks, with negotiations going on even as Roberts attended the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which NBCU is broadcasting, cablecasting and streaming. Charter execs, by multiple accounts, were caught off guard when news broke (via NBCU’s CNBC, no less) late on Feb. 12 that Comcast was closing in on an agreement for all of TW Cable — at a pricetag of $158.82 a share.
Comcast’s perch in the media universe will be scrutinized, criticized, debated and decried during the next 12 months as the company submits to a regulatory strip-search to secure federal approval of the merger. As demonstrated by Roberts’ unwavering assertion that the union would be pro-consumer in the long run, the man who would be king of the bigger, bolder Comcast is ready to take on all comers.