Why Brian Roberts Wants NBC
By Evan Weiner
November 17, 2009
11:30 AM EST
(New York, N. Y.) – Nearly five and a half years after failing to gain control of the Walt Disney Company, Brian Roberts’s Comcast Corporation’s cable TV multiple systems operation is on the verge of reeling in NBCUniversal and gaining control of NBC’s various properties including the NBC network, a number of NBC owned television stations along with cable TV outlets including Bravo, MSNBC, the USA Network and CNBC and a movie studio.
General Electric is ready to give up 51 percent of NBC and remain a minority partner. General Electric purchased NBC’s parent company, RCA in 1986. NBC does not fit in with General Electric’s core businesses. Roberts wants to make Comcast bigger and perhaps rewrite communications history.
In February 2004, Roberts made a $66 billion offer to take over Disney but the Disney board refused to play ball with the Philadelphia-based cable TV CEO. By 2004, Comcast had become the United States biggest cable TV multiple systems operator. Roberts went after the ABC TV network along with the Disney film studio, ESPN and other Disney-owned cable TV networks, the various ABC radio networks and theme parks.
In 2004, Roberts had a rather weak cable TV sports network, the Outdoor Life Network and a number of other cable entities including E! Entertainment Television, the Golf Channel and ownership in the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers and the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. What Roberts really wanted was ESPN, which was a cash cow for Disney in 2004 and continues to be a major source of funding for Disney to this day.
Disney rejected Roberts’s overtures and in April 2004, Roberts gave up on the bid.
Comcast is a major player in the video distribution industry whether it is through cable TV or broadband. Roberts is also a major player in the American sports industry and capturing NBC would substantially increase what presently is a large sports company.
Among Roberts’ holdings is Comcast Spectacor (the Flyers, 76ers, the company manages the teams’ arena along with skating rinks in the Philadelphia area and the company’s Global Spectrum manages more than 20 arenas and stadiums in the United States, Canada and Croatia including the new soccer stadium in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, the Arizona Cardinals stadium in Glendale, and the Glens Falls Civic Center in Glens Falls, New York which houses the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate. Comcast also owes Ovations Food Services, a concessions company that provides food and drinks to various arenas and other facilities in the US and has a sports and events ticketing company.). Comcast also produces figure skating shows on NBC.
Roberts and Comcast have a number of regional sports networks including Comcast Sports Net in Chicago featuring the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox; Philadelphia (Roberts’s 76ers and Flyers along with Phillies baseball and local college sports), CSN Washington (Capitals, Wizards and DC United games along with Washington Redskins programming), Roberts has a partnership with the San Francisco Giants and Rupert Murdoch’s FOX in San Francisco in the Comcast SportsNet Bay Area channel which features Giants, Golden State Warriors, San Jose Earthquakes and college sports. Another regional sports network, Comcast SportsNet California is fully owned by Roberts and has the Bay Area sports teams that are not on the Bay Area channel, the Oakland A’s, the San Jose Sharks, some Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers programming along with the Sacramento Kings and Monarchs.
Roberts is also part of the jointly owned SportsNet New York with Time Warner Cable and the New York Mets, which features Mets games and programming, New York Jets programming and some college sports. Comcast also owns a sports network in the Pacific Northwest that revolves around Portland Trail Blazers and Vancouver Canucks games along with college sports and in New England, CSN New England has the rights to Boston Celtics games.
Additionally, Comcast has a piece of the MountainWest Sports Network which is a joint venture with the CBS College Sports Network and the Mountain West Conference and the entire programming consists of conference related games and shows. Comcast also has a piece of Major League Baseball’s MLB Network.
So just why does Roberts want NBCUniversal?
It would make Comcast an even bigger player in the cable/broadband world. Comcast would add USA, Bravo, CNBC and MSNBC to its assets and would get a piece of the broadband video streaming site Hulu.
Comcast and Roberts would get significant sports content as well. The 2010 and 2012 Olympics, the Sunday Night NFL package along with the NHL’s New Year’s Day game and the Stanley Cup playoffs. NBC also has the French Open and Wimbledon in tennis and a number of major golf tournaments including the US Open. That fits into Comcast’s sports strategy but more importantly, Roberts might be able to leverage his Versus network into a competition with ESPN for rights to the NFL, MLB, NBA to go along with his NHL agreement.
NBC’s deal with the National Football League ends in 2013. Most of NBC’s partnerships with sports leagues are revenue sharing ventures except the NFL and Olympics agreements. The International Olympic Committee has put off negotiating a new American TV rights deal until 2011 for the 2014 Sochi Games. Roberts could be at the table for those talks. It is not unknown if Roberts will keep NBCUniversal Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol around. Ebersol walked away from agreements with the NFL in 1997, Major League Baseball in 2000, the National Basketball Association in 2002 and the Belmont Stakes in 2005 because rights fees had escalated to the point where networks began losing money on the properties.
Roberts funds a large number of sports teams and college sports conferences through his cable TV ventures. If Roberts gets NBC, will the network become a player for the NBA, MLB and perhaps the Bowl Championship Series or is network TV dead? That is a question that Roberts can only answer if he latches onto NBC?
Taking on ESPN will be a daunting task as the Disney Company is shifting into the broadband business with ESPN360 but an NBC deal might change the equation and allow Roberts to go after the 2014, 2016 and 2018 Olympics with the combinations of networks and a major broadband presence at hand should the Comcast take over of NBC be approved by Eric Holder’s Department of Justice and other regulatory agencies.
Comcast, if the deal goes through with NBC, would control a significant portion of programming. In 2004, Roberts failed to gain control of Disney through a hostile takeover. This time, it appears that Roberts will have an easier time in gaining control of a major United States media company but it will not be easy.
The French-owned company, Vivendi, has to sign off on the deal as it owns 20 percent of NBCUniversal, and there are the various reviews from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission. There also could be private citizens who file objections. But General Electric wants to get rid of NBC, which makes life a lot easier for Roberts in his bid to make Comcast an even more omnipotent communications force.