Comcast is approaching its merger with NBC Universal with an eye toward investing in content — not with the intent of "Comcastizing" its corporate culture.
So said the cable giant’s chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, addressing interviewer Peter Chernin at a one-on-one discussion event produced Tuesday morning by the Hollywood Radio and Television Society.
The event was held at the weeklong NCTA/Cable Show convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"We’re approaching this with the mindset of, ‘How do we invest, and serve and let them have their own vision,’" Roberts said, addressing a wide-ranging Q&A moderated by his counterpart, the former president and COO of News Corp.
With Comcast in the process of seeking regulatory approval of its merger with NBCU, Roberts told Chernin — along with an conference-room audience of several hundred attendees that also included his father, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts — that he "feels better about the decision to do the deal today than I did five months ago," when the agreement was first announced.
For one, he said the advertising market is much improved, with automostive, financial and other once-moribund sectors springing back to life.
"We’re seeing 20-25 percent increases every month," he noted.
The capitol markets are also stabilizing," he said.
"For this merger, we were able to raise $10 billion at a much lower interest rate than we expected," Roberts explained.
Further, he noted that Comcast approaches the merger not in an "over-leveraged" situation. "We will have a ratio of three times debt to cash flow, so we will always have free-flowing cash."
At one point, Roberts was pressed by Chernin as to how he’ll deal with matters of editorial control. How, for example, will Roberts handle controversial voices like MSNBC commentator Keith Olberman?
Roberts sort of ducked that one:
"Lets have that conversation in 12 months or six months, when we’re playing with live ammuniition," he responded.
Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, reached an agreement with NBC-U parent General Electric in December to acquire 51 percent of the media company.
Roberts told Chernin that he lamented the fact that Comcast had in years prior passed up several opportunities at big content plays, notably one involving Discovery Communications.
"Comcast would be a very different company today if we’d have done that 20 years ago," he said.
Before the Q&A with Chernin started, Roberts spoke individuall for five minutes, mainly highlighting and updating Comcast’s huge "On Demand" broadband inititiative, which has now, he said, delivered about 1 1/2 times as many downloads of movies and TV shows as Apple’s iTunes has delivered music files.
According to Roberts, the service — which now has new servers and greater storage capacity — has now delivered 15 billion orders to Comcast customers, with 75 percent of the company’s digital customers using it regularly.
"If it was its own TV channel, it would be our second highest rated offering," he explained.
With the new servers coming online, Comcast On Demand subscribers will have access to 11,000 movies from both studio and independent studios, as well as episodes from 1,200 series.
Using the auditorium big-screen to demonstrate the system’s programming menu, Roberts briefly clicked on the CBS icon … generating some decent laughs in the process.
"No reason to pick them," he said.