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Comcast's Brian Roberts: The man who loves cable

March 2, 2011 |  5:24 pm

Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts let investors in on a little secret Wednesday during his keynote speech at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom conference in San Francisco.

BrianrobertsThe 51-year-old executive's biggest concern over the last  year was nothow best to fold NBC Universal into Comcast.  No, Roberts said, it was the transition to replace his No. 2 executive, Steve Burke, who had been in charge of the day-to-day operations of the company's lucrative cable business.

Last month, when Comcast took control of NBC Universal, Burke became chief executive of the television and movie company.  Burke surrendered his role and title of chief operating officer of Comcast.  Neil Smit -- who joined Comcast 13 months ago from cable company Charter Communications -- is now executive vice president in charge of all of Comcast's cable operations.

Roberts called the executive changes Comcast's "most important transition."

After all, Comcast's core business of cable TV, Internet and telephone service brings in $36 billion in annual revenue.  Comcast's programming business, which now includes NBC Universal, generates a little more than half that amount.

Despite dramatic changes underway in the media business, Roberts remains bullish on the company's prospects. Comcast raised its dividend last month and plans to buy back $2 billion in stock. The Philadelphia-based company, Roberts said, took control of NBC Universal at a particularly advantageous time. The NBC Universal businesses are now doing better than when the deal was first announced in late 2009, and Comcast needed less money than it had anticipated -- $6.2 billion in cash versus $6.5 billion at the time of the announcement -- to pay General Electric Co., which now has a minority stake in NBC Universal. 

The television advertising market has rebounded in the last year, and there's a new stream of revenue as cable companies begin to pay the broadcast networks for their programming.

Roberts said he expects NBC to help bolster Comcast's Golf Channel and Versus, a cable sports network. On the movie side, Comcast can use its clout to shorten the traditional period of time before movies become available on DVD and video-on-demand services, a benefit to Comcast customers.  And soon, NBC Universal programming will be available, joining Turner channels, HBO, Starz and Showtime, on Comcast's anytime, everywhere TV service, Xfinity TV, which now has an application available for the iPad.   

On Wednesday, Roberts suggested that the company's jewel is its broadband Internet service, which now has 17 million customers. That makes Comcast the largest Internet provider in the nation at a time when consumers are increasingly watching news and entertainment online.

"In the next 10 years, people will want more bits in their house than ever before," Roberts said, referring to Internet network capacity. And Comcast's investment in its high-speed networks should help it battle rivals that have cut into Comcast's customer base:  satellite TV providers and telephone companies AT&T and Verizon, which now offer Internet and TV channels.

"We are focused on broadband,"  Roberts said.  "The bet we are making is to be the best pipe. It's as simple as that."

-- Meg James

Photo:  Brian Roberts. Credit: George Widman / Associated Press