Comcast CEO looking to expand global reach

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts says that technology provides "tremendous opportunities" in the global marketplace.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts says that technology provides "tremendous opportunities" in the global marketplace. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press, file)
Posted: January 29, 2012

After four decades of snapping up U.S. cable companies, then acquiring the news-and-entertainment giant NBC Universal Inc. in 2011, Comcast Corp. is ready to take on the planet.

Whizzing through the Swiss Alps on Thursday afternoon on the road to the Zurich airport, America's cable-TV king, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, was having a globalization aha! moment after attending his first World Economic Forum in Davos.

He was high - not only in altitude, but in mood.

"The new technologies make it a flat world," Roberts said, referring to the best-selling book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Friedman. "If you have the content and you have the technology and you have the scale . . . and you have the brands and the credibility, there are tremendous opportunities."

Over two days, he had listened to a talk on the impact of social media, schmoozed with other CEOs, and met with his friend Bill Gates and others for breakfast to discuss distributing vaccines to developing nations.

Now, he was talking on a mobile phone to Philadelphia as he zoomed through a tunnel in the snow-covered mountains - without a single interruption in cell service.

The world, in Roberts' view, is getting smaller, and international sales could be one of Comcast's fastest-growing segments over the next five to 10 years. It won't come in the traditional Comcast way, through the acquisition of hard-line cable-TV systems.

"That's not where we are at the moment," Roberts said.

More likely, it will happen through a reenergized NBCUniversal, whose international operations are based in London, which was on Roberts' itinerary last week.

The operations are headed by Jeff Shell, a former top Comcast programming executive in Philadelphia who has relocated there. Shell has traveled to 35 countries visiting NBCUniversal properties during the last year.

The global opportunities are many, but it won't be easy, Roberts said - an outlook seconded by Vijay Jayant, senior managing director with International Strategy & Investment Group Inc.

Licensing entertainment overseas can be a growth business, Jayant said, but "the key question is how much of NBCU's original content can be exported and dubbed to a foreign language at a minimal cost for a high-margin return."

One successful company in overseas licensing has been Discovery Communications Inc. with documentary-style programming, Jayant said, though he added that foreign audiences can find U.S. sitcoms entertaining.

"I don't know if you've ever seen Seinfeld in Dutch," he said.

NBCUniversal International says its most widely distributed cable channels overseas are E!, Universal Channel, Style, and Syfy. Among its most popular shows are Law & Order, Grimm, Covert Affairs, and Suits. Its library contains 4,000 movies and 75,000 TV episodes.

Roberts said he was motivated partly by what his father, company founder Ralph, told him: "A really great company should not have all its revenues inside the United States."

Comcast began as a cable company in Tupelo, Miss., in the 1960s. Its revenues in 2011, with NBCUniversal, should be about $50 billion, making it the largest U.S. media company.

Historically, international has not been a word to describe the company. Comcast's core business is U.S. cable-TV, phone, and Internet subscriptions. And while NBC and Universal are global brands, former owner General Electric didn't fully exploit them. As a result, Comcast is one of the least-globalized of the biggest U.S. media companies, with about 8 percent, or about roughly $4 billion, coming from international affiliates.

The Walt Disney Co., the most comparable media company to Comcast, derives 25 percent of its revenues from international operations, according to its regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. News Corp., which owns Fox television and movie operations, derives 44.6 percent from overseas subsidiaries, its regulatory filings say.

Even DirecTV, the nation's second-largest pay-TV operator behind Comcast, benefits from fast-growing South American satellite-TV business; about 13 percent of its revenues are foreign, regulatory filings say.

Roberts began his European journey on Monday, flying to London to meet NBCUniversal executives and employees. He spoke Wednesday morning for more than an hour with 900 NBCU employees in a town hall-style meeting in the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square. Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, moderated the conversation.

Roberts said he told the London employees, "I expect that over the next five to 10 years, you will be one of the fast-growing parts of the business." He departed the town hall meeting for the airport.

Next stop: Basel, Switzerland, and on to Davos.

Though it was Roberts' first time at Davos, a high-powered gathering of political leaders, CEOs, and philanthropists that began Wednesday and ends Sunday, the trip was his second on the global business stage in eight months.

In June, he traveled into Lausanne, Switzerland, with a scrum of NBC executives to bid - successfully - on the U.S. broadcast rights for the Olympics. Comcast/NBCUniversal won those rights through 2020 for more than $4 billion, beating sports giant ESPN, owned by Disney, and News Corp.'s Fox Sports.

Roberts said the atmosphere in Davos was informal and snowy. He attended an event to hear from a top London official about preparations for the 2012 Olympics, the first that NBC will broadcast under Comcast's ownership. He had a private dinner with a small group of executives.

He got a firsthand look at CNBC's operation, which broadcast the World Economic Forum from both inside and outside the Congress Center in Davos. The cable channel has covered the event for about a dozen years and had 40 staffers there, including on-air talent Maria Bartiromo. Its coverage was immediately distributed to 390 million homes around the globe.

As he was saying, a flat world.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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