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A Conversation with Brian Roberts – Event Recap

Brian Roberts and Peter Chernin at The Cable Show

For the first time in many years, The Cable Show returned to Los Angeles from May 11-13th at the LA Convention Center. The NCTA and the HRTS joined forces to present an historic event on the morning of the 11th, hosting a conversation with Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast Corporation.

Brian Roberts - ComcastAn audience of Industry insiders welcomed Roberts to the stage where he briefly spoke about the past, present and future of Comcast. Comcast was founded by Roberts’ father Ralph, who was in the audience and who started the company with one station in Tupelo, Mississippi back in 1963. Not to put too fine a point on it but assuming that the Comcast-NBCU merger is approved then Ralph’s legacy will soon be what is arguably the most powerful media company in the country. At present, Comcast offers 8,500 hours of on-demand movies to its consumers, Roberts announcing that this will soon expand to 70,000 hours of content. This expansion is part of Project Xfinity and its mission to create an “explosion of content across platforms”. Roberts offered a demo and said that the project has achieved some impressive milestones, having already delivered 1.5 times the downloads of iTunes.

Peter CherninA conversation of course requires more than one person so who would be up to the task of a sitdown with Brian Roberts? Peter Chernin has vast experience in all facets of the entertainment industry, as both an executive and as a creative. During his time as President of News Corporation he oversaw the global operations of the company’s film, television, satellite, cable, and digital media businesses, and he currently runs Chernin Entertainment, a transmedia production company with multiple projects in the pipeline.

Chernin joined Roberts on stage and asked about the role of cable in society today, of how cable is viewed. Roberts said “I think that cable has been under-appreciated for its contribution to society”, going on to point out that it may be less popular than broadcast simply because cable operators sent monthly bills and broadcast networks do not. On the issue of customer service, Roberts related how one of his executives started following #Comcast tags on Twitter, reading customer complaints then joining the conversation by asking how he could help, something which “instantly changed the perception by a lot of customers”. For this reason or that, the image of the cable industry is not quite where it could be and so Roberts said that “we need to learn from the content industry how to market, how to promote, better than we do today”.

Chernin asked about the cultural differences between being an East Coast-based distribution company versus a bicoastal content and distribution company. Roberts said that the differences are “what makes it interesting and fun” and admitted that the “first thing you do is you acknowledge what you don’t know”. He added that Steve Burke has had 11 years at Disney and 11 years at Comcast and so represents a bridge between content and distribution, an expert in both fields.

Brian RobertsAs for the pending merger of Comcast and NBCU in the midst of a recession, Roberts offered some very good news for their new partners, and for all of Hollywood by extension, when he said that “we are coming into the business with an expectation to invest”. Roberts directly addressed all of the NBCU employees in the room, saying “as great a company as GE is, you’re not the core of what they do. You can’t say that about the new Comcast, the core of what we do is making content, distributing content, understanding the consumer and embracing technology”.

On the topic of corporate culture, Roberts said that “we're not going to try and 'Comcastize' NBC Universal". He added that “there should be a distinct culture at NBC Universal”, then pointed out that they’ve already had some experience in this area with E! and other existing Comcast networks.

Raising an issue that he himself has dealt with many times, Chernin asked Roberts how he would deal with conflicts such as when an NBC show or a Universal film offends folks in one part of the country or another. Roberts said that consumers “don’t have to buy every channel, don’t have to watch every channel” and that Comcast has experience in this area going back to the movie “The Passion of the Christ”, which they decided to carry despite protests in some regions. A dedication to consumer choice is a line they crossed many years ago, Roberts adding that they are prepared to take “the wild ride that is the media business”.

What of the future?

Roberts and Chernin on stageAs for the future of content, Roberts said that continued growth in the numbers and types of distributors will place a premium on professionally-produced content, and that the laws of supply and demand will cause it to increase in value going forward. So, combine a 24/7 on-demand world with a relatively limited supply of professional content and it follows that things are looking up on the Hollywood side of the equation. This media math is a key driver behind Comcast’s motivation to purchase NBCU, Roberts relating how they’ve been looking to buy in to the content side for some time.

As for the future of the cable industry, Chernin asked about the outlook for the next few years in the face of rising Internet viewership and other potential concerns. Roberts said that on the market front “this is an amazingly resilient business” and on the regulatory front “I honestly don’t believe that the government is trying to turn the clock back” and on the consumer experience front it’s “simplicity, that’s what always tends to win”.

The Cable Show returned to Los Angeles, Peter Chernin sat with Brian Roberts and we learned that things are looking up for NBCU, for cable, and for the entertainment industry in general.

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1 Responses »

  1. So who is this Brian Roberts guy anyway? Why doesn't he lower my cable bill?

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