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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Acquisition Of NBC Would Put Comcast Among Media Elite

San Jose Mercury News

At a dinner 12 years ago in Redmond, Wash., Brian Roberts challenged the richest man in the world to invest in his business — cable TV.

Other guests, cable industry executives older than Roberts, then a 30-something scion of a cable industry family that owns Comcast, looked at their shoes. Someone quickly changed the subject by asking Bill Gates about his vacation plans.

Two days later, one of Gates' deputies at Microsoft called Roberts, and a month later the company invested $1 billion in Comcast, a vote of confidence in an industry that was struggling to adapt to the Internet and slow to build broadband services.

Roberts is on the verge of his next big moment, a takeover of NBC Universal. The $30 billion deal, the final details of which are still being negotiated, will catapult Comcast from being the top cable operator to a major producer of television and movies, and will elevate Roberts to the top ranks of the media industry elite.

For Roberts, 50, acquiring NBC Universal will be the capstone of years of carefully plotting how to control both the distribution of content into homes and the production of it.

The path from Roberts' moment with Gates to his prominence today is terrain marked by successes big and small — the biggest being the $30 billion deal for AT&T Broadband in 2002, which made Comcast, based in Philadelphia, the largest cable company in the country. It was also marked by one big failure, a hostile takeover bid for Walt Disney Co. in 2004.

After that defeat, Roberts took a small-ball approach to building the company's content assets — focusing on networks such as Versus, the Golf Channel, and E the Entertainment Channel.

He still harbored ideas of a big play for content, but he learned that his approach had to be friendly, as Comcast's own shareholders reacted negatively to the Disney bid. The Disney offer was an all-stock bid for the entire company, while in the case of NBC Universal, Comcast is proposing to use only cash to buy a majority stake.

"In today's world," Roberts said at a recent Internet conference, "people want to get connected to content they love." As they find more ways to connect, "you could make a case" that content "is going to grow in value, and is going to be a healthy business."