Even though he’d previously said that Comcast has no plans to sell the broadcast assets after it acquires control of NBC Universal, a Monday story in the New York Times had Comcast CEO Brian Roberts being asked again at a UBS conference Monday whether he wants to divest the broadcast operations. He insisted that broadcasting is a good business, although it has challenges, and called it the “core of what we’re getting” with NBCU.
Roberts noted that the majority of the cash flow at NBCU comes from its cable channels, which he called “the best business in media.” But he insisted that broadcasting (encompassing network, stations and studio) is a good business. And he noted that the broadcasting businesses at NBCU created the shows that have powered USA, making it the #1 cable network, and Bravo and the other cable networks. Also, he noted, NBC has been critical to cross-promoting the cable assets. “I also think there’s a chance that in the future the broadcast business economics might get better,” Roberts said, noting new trends such as digital TV, retrans and wireless (mobile TV). Plus, he noted that NBC could move up from #4 because the network business tends to by cyclical. “We’re not counting on it,” he said, but noted the financial leverage which would come if NBC moved up in the rankings.
Roberts chuckled about all of the stories being written which claim to get into the thinking at Comcast about the broadcast assets and their disposition. “There has never been a case that we thought about selling the broadcast business. It really is integral to the way that NBC Universal operates. Our only goal when we show up is to try to do everything we can to help NBC rise and get into third, second or first place,” he said.
Asked about his “philosophical” view of the free over-the-air television business, Roberts quipped that as a cable guy he’d fought to keep over-the-air television free by fighting retransmission consent – “but we lost in the Supreme Court.”
As for NBC’s broadcasting assets: “We made a commitment on day one that we believe NBC should have an affiliate station group that we don’t own, in addition to the owned and operated [stations]…and we should have a free broadcast signal in the air. We’re not looking to undo that part of the equation,” Roberts told the UBS 37th Annual Global Media and Communications Conference in New York.
Roberts called it “very simplistic” to think that Comcast could take NBC and turn it into another cable channel. To make a broadcast network, he said, you have the symbiotic relationship between local and national programming. “It’s hard to imagine how you would even do that if you wanted to,” he said of bypassing the broadcast station link.
Asked yet again about the value of the broadcasting stations, Roberts insisted, “It’s hard for me to imagine a television network without its own stations, for a whole variety of reasons. It’s hard to imagine a network without the affiliate stations, for a whole variety of reasons. The O&O stations are obviously profitable – not as profitable as they were years ago, but they’re clearly profitable. Importantly, they’re a connection with the local communities. They’re part of the public trust.”
RBR-TVBR observation: No matter how many times he says otherwise, there is going to be speculation by some observers that Roberts will or should get Comcast out of the broadcasting television business. From what we’ve heard him say in recent days, Roberts is not blind to the value of broadcasting. He gets that broadcast networks have larger viewer bases than cable networks and that NBC couldn’t just move that audience to cable and dump the affiliate/O&O structure. Certainly new territory is being charted here, though, particularly with Comcast, reluctantly the biggest payer of retransmission consent fees, set to own the networks supplying programming to many of the affiliate stations on the receiving end of that cash and, indeed, collecting retrans payments itself through its NBC and Telemundo O&Os. The world is changing.