Roberts: Comcast moving on

Cabler's hope for a deal remains after Disney push

NEW ORLEANS — Comcast Corp. topper Brian Roberts doesn’t give up easily.

Even though his dreams of acquiring Disney are over, Roberts said Monday that the turn of events hasn’t killed his hopes of making a deal with an entertainment provider sometime in the future.

“We’re moving on,” Roberts said during a discussion with other cable industry execs at the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. convention. “It’s time to go play some golf and get the batteries recharged … It’s time to move on and get focused back on cable.”

But later Roberts promised that the cable giant would not “rest on its laurels.” And in cryptic yes and no responses, Roberts said Comcast was not giving up on the idea of combining its cable distribution system with a major content provider.

“Comcast is in entertainment communications,” he said. “The question is not owning the content, but how to get the content to the consumer.”

One-sided love

Last week, Roberts gave up on a merger with Disney when Mouse House execs made it clear that the original offer of $54 billion was too low, and they never had a real interest in combining the two congloms.

Other recent merger speculation has swirled around bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp.

Roberts and Time Warner topper Richard Parsons remained mum about any interest in taking over Adelphia.

“I don’t think you’re going to get an answer to that question at this kind of forum,” Parsons told reporters at a news conference after the panel discussion.

The execs also expressed little concern that cablers would soon face the same kind of federal indecency laws and fines as their broadcasting brethren if they don’t clean up their act and stop airing risque programming. Several lawmakers have warned the industry they were next in line if they don’t change their ways.

Parsons said he has the “utmost respect” for policymakers in Washington, but argued that they are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the current anti-smut crusade.

Parsons also dismissed efforts by some lawmakers to force cable and satcasters to let consumers choose the channels they want a la carte or at least offer a family-friendly tier free of raunchy content.

“I’m not one who’s all that concerned about it,” he said, predicting Congress would not force the issue this year.

Too much control

“What elected representatives should do is to take a step back and let the marketplace work it out,” he said. “I have a big problem with this government regulating tiering, pricing and censorship… .”

Roberts agreed, arguing that the movement for a la carte was not coming from consumers because it’s not a business model that makes sense to them.

“Cable channels are boutiques,” he said. “If you made them get stores all over town, they wouldn’t survive. But if you put them in a mall, that collectivism has allowed advertising to come to cable and eyeballs to come to cable.”

Before the panel spoke, NCTA chief Robert Sachs kicked off the three-day National Show with opening remarks trumpeting some of the highlights of the convention such as the 7,000-foot broadband home exhibit and appearances by Dept. of Education secretary Rod Paige, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Federal Communications Commission topper Michael Powell.

Tauzin surprise

Local bayou boy Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) added a touch of nostalgia and good cheer with a surprise appearance during the opening session. Tauzin, who chaired the House Energy and Commerce panel that regulates cable for years, relinquished the gavel earlier this year after he announced his retirement and was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.

“You didn’t think a little cancer would keep me from welcoming friends?” Tauzin remarked, his voice choking down tears. It was his first public appearance since undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Audience gave him a standing ovation.

Later, two of Tauzin’s Congressional colleagues appeared and offered their opinions on the indecency issue and the current debate surrounding the Satellite Home Viewership Act renewal, currently making its way through Congress.

Stevens, who will takeover the Senate Commerce panel chairmanship at the end of the year, predicted the bill boosting indecency fines on broadcasters would not reach the Senate floor until June or July. And he predicted it would not resolve the anti-smut debate.

“The bill will only cover less than 20 % of TV viewers,” he said.

Stevens said there is not enough public consensus on the issue for Congress to decide whether cablers and satcaters should operate under the same indecency laws as over the air broadcasters.

Sensenbrenner was more blunt in his support of a free-market approach.

“The most effective control is having the remote control in the hand of the parents,” he said.

The two lawmakers also differed on their approach to the Satellite Home Viewer Act. With so much of Congress’ legislative calendar consumed by the presidential election and party conventions this summer, Stevens called for a simple one-year extension of the existing law to allow Congress time to evaluate it more deliberately next year.

Sensenbrenner supports efforts to pass the bill this year; his committee plans to move the legislation next week. But he said he opposes any effort to add language forcing cablers to offer consumers a la carte programming options, as some lawmakers advocate.