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Comcast CEO Brian Roberts says cable gets bum rap and he likes 'Californication'

May 11, 2010 |  1:13 pm

The chief executive of the nation's largest cable company says the industry gets a bad rap.

"I think cable has been under-appreciated for its contribution to society," Comcast Corp. Chief Executive Brian Roberts said during an interview Tuesday with former News Corp. President Peter Chernin at the National Cable & Telecommunications convention here in Los Angeles.

ROBERTS "We're the industry people always love to hate," Roberts said. He added that his father, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, had been pushing for Comcast to put bumper stickers on all its trucks that said "I love cable." Brian Roberts said he wasn't sure he was ready to try that marketing approach, perhaps out of fear of ending up with a bunch of trucks being vandalized. "We need to learn from the content industry how to market," Robert said. That said, "there is not any real evidence" of consumers cutting the cable cord in favor of the Internet," he said.

As Comcast tried to close a $30-billion deal to take control of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, which would catapult the family-run company into the top echelon of media companies, Roberts kept much of his remarks focused on how the company was trying to better serve its customers opposed to its plans to merge its vast distribution platforms with NBC Universal's array of cable networks including USA, Bravo, CNBC and MSNBC.

With heat from Washington about what the merger of the country's most powerful cable company with a content giant would mean to consumers, Roberts opened his session with an impressive display of Comcast's latest on-demand capabilities that will offer subscribers as many as 11,000 movies available on-demand. The test markets are -- appropriately enough -- its hometown of Philadelphia and the nation's capital, where the lawmakers and regulators who will decide the fate of the Comcast-NBC deal reside.

Hollywood is starting to play ball with Comcast regarding offering movies on-demand at the same time they come out on DVD. Roberts said that in 2007 about 13 movies were offered on-demand the same day as their DVD release, but last year that number had grown to more than 100.

During his interview with Chernin, Roberts said the cable company did not have plans to "Comcastize" NBC and reiterated that plans to invest in the NBC properties, something that current parent General Electric has become less willing to do over the past few years. Cherin, Roberts reminded his interviewer, had himself told the Comcast chief executive, "don't do this deal if you can't fall in love with NBC." 

Chernin tried to get Roberts to squirm a little by asking him what he would do if MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann started bashing Republican senators during a sensitive time for the company in D.C. or if  Universal Pictures released a controversial religious movie. Roberts didn't play along but did stress the importance of keeping NBC News free from corporate interference.

"The single most awesome asset that comes from this deal is NBC News," he said, adding, "NBC News will help define Comcast."

Roberts said he hopes Comcast's leadership of NBC will perhaps even slow the exodus of big programming events to cable. If that sounds strange coming from a cable company executive, it also highlights the tricky road Roberts is on as both head of a cable giant and a broadcasting legend. For example,the cable operator in him doesn't want to pay broadcasters to carry their signal, but when he has his broadcasting hat on he will ask other cable and satellite distributors to pay to carry NBC stations. "Broadcast is going to have another revenue stream."

Roberts seemed to be caught a little flat footed when Chernin asked what his favorite TV shows and movies were. Like many busy media executives, Roberts either doesn't have time to actually watch much of the content his company pumps into almost 25-million homes or he doesn't want to risk offending anyone. He did surprise some in the audience by finally acknowledging that he and his wife enjoyed Showtime's rather racy drama "Californication."

That might be a little TMI.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press

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