Why Comcast CEO Brian Roberts Is The Best Deal-Maker In Media

Roberts built Comcast into a programming and distribution powerhouse by gobbling up companies like Pac-Man did pellets. His latest deal came late Wednesday night for Time Warner Cable.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Rick Wilking / Reuters / Reuters

Brian Roberts, the chief executive officer of cable giant Comcast, is not an imposing figure. His frame is thin and of slight musculature, his face framed by a delicate pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He resembles Bill Gates in many respects.

And just like Gates, appearances to the contrary, Roberts will crush anyone standing in the way of his business objectives. The avid squash player (he won a gold medal with the U.S. squash team in 2005) proved that again late Wednesday night, coming out of nowhere to snatch Time Warner Cable away from presumed buyer Charter Communications in a deal valued at $44 billion, or just under $159 per share. By closing a deal at about $25 more per share than Charter’s offer, Roberts has made a bid so prohibitively expensive for anyone else that the idea of a bidding war is out of the question. In deal terms, Comcast’s offer basically says, “If we can’t have Time Warner Cable, then no one can.”

The deal, first reported by CNBC’s David Faber and expected to be announced Thursday morning, if completed would give Comcast a total of about 34 million subscribers, making the already largest pay-TV distributor in the country even larger.

How Comcast grew to be that big is owed almost entirely to Roberts’s deal-making. He has spent literally hundreds of billions of dollars rolling up rival distributors and, later, cable networks. Indeed, the Time Warner Cable deal isn’t even Comcast’s biggest. In 2001, the company bought AT&T Broadband for $52 billion.

Comcast, currently based in Philadelphia, traces its roots back to Tupelo, Miss., where Roberts’s father, Ralph, bought a small, 1,200-subscriber cable system in 1963. From there began a four-decade-long roll-up that extended the company’s reach from New Jersey to Los Angeles and virtually all points in between. The timeline of key events on Comcast’s website lists no fewer than two dozen deals for distribution and programming companies ranging from Adelphia Communications to QVC.

While Ralph Roberts founded the company, Comcast really didn’t begin playing on a national stage until the late ’90s, well after Brian Roberts had assumed control. In 1998, Roberts bought Jones Intercable and Prime Communications, swelling its subscriber total to about 6 million for a combined price of roughly $4.5 billion. A year later, Roberts agreed to merge Comcast with MediaOne Group in a $60 billion deal that nearly doubled its subscriber count to 11 million.

Two years after that Roberts landed the big one, AT&T Broadband, in a deal valued at $72 billion, broken out into $52 billion in stock and $20 billion in assumed debt. That deal instantly transformed Comcast into the largest cable company in the country, lifting its subscriber base to 21 million, slightly under where it currently stands today. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — the precursor to AT&T Broadband was an entity known as TeleCommunications Inc., which was founded by John Malone, whose Liberty Media has a 27% stake in Charter and is widely believed to have been goading the company to buy Time Warner Cable behind the scenes.

Parallel to Comcast buying up distribution assets, Roberts was also treading carefully into content, acquiring stakes in networks and partnering with companies selectively. An investment in QVC here, a stake in The Golf Channel, a partnership on E!, acquiring The Outdoor Channel, forming regional sports networks such as Comcast SportNet Philadelphia and launching its own channels like G4.

Those were all just precursors to what was to come. In 2004, Roberts launched a surprise $54 billion hostile takeover attempt of Disney, a shockingly audacious move against an iconic American company. While that bid ultimately failed, it foreshadowed Roberts’ ambitions. He wasn’t just satisfied being the biggest cable distributor in the country — he wanted Comcast to be as big as its wallet would allow.

So it wasn’t at all surprising when, five years later, Roberts announced a deal to buy NBC Universal for $30 billion. At a time when his competitors were getting smaller — Sumner Redstone had split Viacom and CBS years earlier; Jeff Bewkes was in the midst of spinning off assets from Time Warner — Roberts was going in the opposite direction.

And now, just when everyone had assumed that Comcast was as big as it needed to be on the distribution side and Roberts was focused on buying content, he goes out and inks a massive, landscape-altering deal.

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