Comcast ready for Rupe

Co. touts high-def packages, competing with satcasters

NEW YORK — Comcast chief exec Brian Roberts is ready for the Rupert Revolution.

Speaking Wednesday to a lunchtime gathering at Smith Barney’s media and entertainment conference in Phoenix, Roberts was cool as a cucumber on the topic of whether cablers like Comcast were prepared for the competitive marketing campaign with direct broadcast satellite.

Outlining the usual “triple play” assortment of high-tech video, voice and data services with which cable will differentiate its offerings from satellite, Roberts seemed confident that cable, and Comcast in particular, had the right stuff to compete with Rupert Murdoch’s DirecTV.

“We’re trying to be aggressive in terms of marketing new products,” said Roberts, noting that each of Comcast’s markets will be offering high-definition, DVR and/or video-on-demand services this year. “We’re putting ourselves in a position to be differentiated (from) our competitors.”

Comcast is touting a high-def package of 12 channels that it claims is superior to what satellite can offer, particularly with local sports services.

Key to getting out the new service and bundled pitch is retail sales. Comcast said it hopes to increase its retail presence from some 300 outlets today to some 2,000 by the end of 2004.

Roberts said 24% of Comcast’s new high-def subscribers are new Comcast customers. “It’s the best opportunity we’ve found to get the customer back from satellite,” he said.

The retail push also will exploit video-on-demand as a sexy new feature. Comcast, which touts a large array of “free” VOD content on its Philadelphia systems, said it has seen a dramatic uptick in usage among its enabled digital subs and a distinct reduction in churn compared to its systems that don’t yet feature VOD.

As a potentially potent killer app in its competition with satellite, Roberts notes its service capacity in the next several years will increase fivefold at around half the current storage cost. “We think we can build a whole new business with consumers getting what they want when they want,” he said. “Satellite cannot do that.”

As for the old cable bugaboo of customer service, Comcast admitted it has work to do to bring some of its systems up to stuff. As part of a major new customer service campaign, Roberts said Comcast is bringing most of the old AT&T call centers into the markets that they serve and will be working harder to communicate a more consumer-friendly attitude.

“We had to get the plumbing right first. … Now you’re going to see a pretty significant step-up in terms of customer care and concern.”

As for the fate of the company’s 21% stake in Time Warner Cable, Roberts would only reiterate that Comcast is anxious to monetize the position and is open to any other similarly valued proposal that Time Warner is willing to make, be it a buyout or asset swaps.

“We need to continue to talk (to Time Warner) about other ways to divest,” said Roberts, adding he didn’t want to be forced into a fire sale of a valuable stake in an asset like TWC.

Meanwhile, another cabler has climbed aboard the digital video recorder bandwagon. Paul Allen-owned Charter Communications said it intends to launch an integrated DVR in the next two months. Set-top box is being designed in association with Allen-owned Diego, a software and interactive TV technology group.

Currently being tested in Michigan, the boxes will be rolled out in 12 Charter systems this year.

Charter also is launching Scientific-Atlanta’s Explorer 8000 DVR box in four of its California systems, with more of those boxes to be rolled out this month.

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