Comcast CEO Roberts Wants NBCU Cable to Produce ‘Breaking Bad’-Size Hit

Peacock's cablers have had successful shows in their niches but no 'breakout hit,' Comcast topper says

Brian Roberts Comcast
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Comcast CEO Brian Roberts expressed a desire for NBCUniversal’s cable networks division to deliver a buzz-worthy, breakout hit on the order of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” and cited growing competition across the TV landscape as slowing revenue growth at the unit.

Cablers like USA, Bravo and E! have had successful shows in their respective “niches,” the Comcast topper said, speaking Tuesday at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2014 Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference. But “we haven’t had a breakout hit.”

“We’d always like to get a ‘Breaking Bad,'” Roberts said, referring to the Emmy-winning drama that along with “Mad Men” helped boost demand and viewership for AMC. More television series have been launched in the last 12 months than ever before, so “the chance to get a breakout hit becomes harder and harder,” he added.

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NBCU in February 2013 consolidated oversight of all cable networks under Bonnie Hammer, who together with her team has been reengineering how the nets pick shows and market them across the portfolio. The growth rate of the NBCU cable properties has been slower than when Comcast acquired the Peacock in 2011 “but there’s more competition,” Roberts said.

But at the same time, NBCU’s cable channels, including its regional sports networks, continue to drive the majority of the cash flow for the programmer. “There will be ups and downs,” Roberts said, but said there’s more work to be done and more opportunity in the years ahead. The CEO called out Hispanic cabler Telemundo, which has broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, noting that today it’s one-tenth the size of Univision Communications.

As for rising programming costs in the pay-TV industry, “It’s a really critical conversation that’s going to be going on for another 10 years,” Roberts said.

He said Comcast, together with NBCU, could potentially provide “constructive” solutions to the issues of double-digit increases on programming. But he also said NBC still has more upside from retransmission-consent fees from pay-TV ops; the Peacock has increase retrans revenue from “nearly zer0” in 2011 to $350 million in 2014.

Regarding Comcast’s pending acquisition of Time Warner Cable, Roberts didn’t have any updates. He reiterated that the process is “on track” to close at the beginning of 2015, following shareholder votes in October for both companies. “I continue to feel extremely positive” about the synergies possible by combining the top two MSOs, he said.

The Universal Studios theme parks business has been a “pleasant surprise,” Roberts said, with revenue up year-to-year and the properties registering 90%-plus satisfaction rates among attendees. “It’s modern, it’s new… it’s fresh,” he said, calling out the launch of the new “Harry Potter” attraction this summer at Universal Orlando Resort. “We’re building on that around the world.”

Roberts wasn’t present in person at the conference, held at Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Hollywood. Instead, he was holed up at Rockefeller Center in NYC, and was interviewed via videoconference by Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen.