As New Owner of NBC Universal, Can Comcast Merge the Corporate with the Creative?

Strumming a guitar and bouncing off the stage at a New York City ballroom last week, late night host Jimmy Fallon sang, “Have a Comcastic Day!” to advertisers at a showcase for NBC’s fall television lineup, the first since the network was acquired in January by Comcast, the Philadelphia-based media conglomerate.

NBC Universal is just the latest in a long string of acquisitions that has transformed family-run Comcast from a single cable television operation in Tupelo, Miss., into the largest U.S. cable television and home Internet provider with revenue of nearly $35.8 billion last year.

Comcast’s most recent expansion will test the ability of the company’s hard-nosed business culture to deliver results in the creative entertainment sphere, and comes against the backdrop of rapidly evolving technology pumping media content out across many platforms.

“The big trend in communications and media for several years is convergence,” says Kevin Werbach, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. “Separate industries are all becoming integrated into a multi-faceted digital environment, and Comcast has been one of the most successful companies in … building all the major pieces of the converged media.”

According to Werbach, Comcast has a strong reputation for being able to seek out and complete successful financial transactions. The challenge for the company now, he warns, is to mesh its holdings, which include Internet, television, telephone, business services and content companies — including NBC — in entirely new ways that will create value beyond the sum of its many pieces.

“How are they going to use all those parts in ways that are multiplicative, not just additive?” Werbach asks. “It’s a big question for Comcast.”

The NBC deal, in which Comcast bought a controlling stake from General Electric, combines Comcast’s cable networks — including E!, Versus and the Golf Channel — with the NBC broadcast network, MSNBC, USA, BRAVO, Universal Studios and Universal’s theme parks. The move continues the company’s expansion away from simply delivering content through its “pipes” to providing more high-value products and services.

While some analysts have painted Comcast’s latest acquisitions as a move toward vertical integration, Werbach says that media companies are more complicated than a classic industrial value chain. Programming, he notes, is available from many sources, and as Comcast extends its reach, the company will find itself on multiple sides of negotiations as it produces and transmits media content.

Comcast’s roots lie in distribution. Founded nearly 50 years ago as a cable television provider by Ralph Roberts and several partners, Comcast has made a long series of acquisitions, including AT&T broadband in 2002, to become a media conglomerate with operations in 39 states. Comcast is now run by the founder’s son, Brian Roberts, and recently rebranded its cable, Internet and telephone operations with the name XFINITY, reflecting its growth beyond just cable distribution. Steve Burke, a former Disney executive who joined Comcast in 1998, has been named chief executive officer of NBC Universal and executive vice president of Comcast.

Already, Comcast has had an impact on NBC Universal. Last fall, at Burke’s suggestion, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker ended an often controversial 24-year career at the network. Comcast hired former Showtime executive Robert Greenblatt to liven up the struggling NBC broadcast television franchise. On Thursday, Dick Ebersole, NBC’s long-time sports chief, resigned from the network, which lost $200 million on the 2010 Winter Olympics.

According to Kenneth Shropshire, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, Ebersol’s departure is “all part of the process” of Comcast’s acquisition. Ebersole, he says, “is a big picture, big forward thinker, and the Comcast culture is more about ROI [return on investment] in the shorter term.”

Comcast also created a stir earlier this month when it announced that former Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker would join the firm as a senior vice president of government affairs. Only months earlier, she approved the Comcast-NBC Universal deal. The appointment is not unusual or illegal, Werbach notes, “but it looks very awkward to have an FCC commissioner who has been involved in reviewing such a major transaction go directly to a major policy role in that company.”

A Match Made In…

The Comcast-NBC Universal merger is not the first major deal in which cable operators attempted to gain access to more content. But the media mega-merger of cable operator Time Warner and AOL failed spectacularly, ending with AOL being spun off into a separate public company in 2009.

“I have not been a big fan of these vertical media mergers,” notes Gerald R. Faulhaber, a Wharton professor emeritus of business and public policy. “It always seems to be a great idea to merge the conduit and content, but they never seem to go anywhere.”

Despite that, Faulhaber believes that if anyone can pull off a successful merger of this type, it is Brian Roberts. He says Roberts has the discipline to back away from flawed deals, such as Comcast’s 2004 hostile bid for Disney, and he calls the AT&T broadband acquisition a “brilliant coup.”

Too often, according to Faulhaber, cable executives are blinded by the glamour of an entertainment property. “Brian Roberts is not bedazzled by the red carpet,” he adds. “If it were anybody else, I would say this is really stupid. Maybe Brian’s got something up his sleeve that we have never seen in the media business before.”

Shropshire says that Comcast is in a much better position now to make a major content acquisition than it was when it attempted to buy Disney in 2004 as a “bare bones” cable operator. It will be interesting to see “if Comcast is going to get unwieldy, or [if it can] pull this off as smoothly as [it has] other things,” notes Shropshire. There will probably be “some glitches” and Comcast might offload some businesses, but “I’m confident [the acquisition] was well thought out. A strategy is in place even if it has not been fully laid out for us.”

However, Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader argues that Comcast is overly focused on its financial transactions and lacks the elements of a successful long-term strategy. He adds that all companies need to be exceptional in one of three capabilities: operational excellence, superior performance of products and services, or customer intimacy.

“Comcast is none of those things,” says Fader. “It’s becoming clear now that Comcast is just a financially driven company looking to make investments that will pay off. I’m not saying the NBC [acquisition] is a bad deal from a financial standpoint, but it is not clear how it contributes to an existing corporate strategy or helps shape a new one.”

Every successful company needs financial rigor, he notes, but at Comcast it seems to be getting in the way of a broader cohesive strategy. “Their future strategy is to continue to find good deals,” he adds. “That would be fine if they were a bank, but they’re not. They are delivering programming and they are not doing it exceptionally well.”

Of the three hallmarks of a successful corporate strategy, Fader suggests Comcast might be best positioned to build on customer intimacy. The company has rich access to data on viewing patterns and Internet behavior that could be used to develop highly valuable relationships with consumers, according to Fader. “They have incredible resources. They have smart people. Now that they have all these parts in place, it’s entirely possible they can figure out [their] mission. I just have not seen any tangible indication of that to date. He hopes to see it happen. “They have a chance to really reshape the industry.”

Going Digital

According to Shropshire, Comcast is likely to integrate content from NBC programming with its Internet and interactive media holdings. He points to this year’s NCAA basketball tournament as an example of media integration that used traditional broadcast, cable and live streaming over the Internet to draw more viewers to the event. Cable operators should not fear competition from the Internet, adds Shropshire, who noted that in the 1960s, owners of NFL teams feared television broadcasts would diminish game attendance and the value of their franchises. Ultimately, television only enhanced the owners’ business many times over.

Despite all the attention on NBC Universal, Comcast’s digital holdings are probably the most interesting part of the company, Faulhaber suggests. At the moment, the industry is attempting to determine the impact of watching television programs on the Internet. For now, he says, the practice is popular with consumers because it is free. However, Faulhaber predicts that content providers and the owners of the content delivery channels will eventually find a way to monetize online viewing.

Delivery of entertainment to mobile devices is another popular concept for now, but Faulhaber argues that its reach will remain limited. “How many people want to watch an NFL football game on a three-inch screen? It’s okay if you are on the go and want to catch up on an episode of ‘NCIS,’ but I don’t think it will be a major delivery system.” However, he suggests that larger screens on tablet devices may be a “breakthrough” in mobile viewing.

Video on demand over the Internet will soak up vast amounts of bandwidth that will lead to new payment models, according to Faulhaber. “In a world where people want to stream HDTV over the Internet, that’s just not going to be free,” which suggests that Internet providers will cap usage and charge high rates for those who go over agreed-upon limits. He says the model will be similar to existing cell phone plans that allow consumers to select a monthly level of minutes, but charge costly overage rates for minutes used above that limit. “I think people are used to that and willing to go for that,” says Faulhaber. He notes that the FCC is discussing the possibility of adding additional spectrum onto the market, but any change in capacity is probably five to seven years away.

In a phone call with analysts following release of Comcast’s most recent quarterly earnings, Brian Roberts was asked about potential acquisitions. He stated that the company’s “plate is full” following the NBC Universal merger.

Roberts also stressed the importance of the company’s high-speed digital data services, which he said presents new business opportunities for NBC in repurposing existing content.

“I think by having the mix of assets we have, we’re in a wonderful position to benefit as the world changes, and some of that change won’t always be great for one piece of the company,” Roberts told analysts. “But overall in the totality of the Comcast shareholders, I think we’re extremely well positioned as the world continues to evolve.”

Of the major media companies, Comcast has the smallest footprint in mobile, according to Werbach. “I would certainly think they are looking very carefully at that,” he says. “I’m certain they are thinking hard about how to ensure they have a strong position in mobile. Whether or not that is with an acquisition or not remains to be seen.”

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