Streaming services may be getting most of the attention right now, but Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is proud of his company’s set-top box, the X1, which includes features like voice search for specific moments of shows. When we sat down for an interview at IGNITION 2015, we talked about the future of the cable business. We covered a lot of ground, and I started by asking him why I still can’t get Comcast’s set-top box in a market such as New York.
Edited for length and clarity.
Henry Blodget: Netflix now has over 40 million subscribers. In a year or two, you will have 20 to 21 million subscribers who have this X1 box, and they will all be happy. They will all, presumably, also be on Netflix. Is there a chance you can take this fully national and go head to head with Netflix?
Brian Roberts: You have to have a business model you believe in and like. Right now, our business model has been to be a facilities-based company. We’re happy to licence the technology. Putting it in New York? I’m not sure quite what’s in it for us. I get what’s in it for you as a consumer, and that’s always a good place to start businesses if the consumer is happy.
Blodget: I’ve been reading that you may go into the wireless business. Yes?
Roberts: I go back to when we met with the late Steve Jobs. He couldn’t understand why we didn’t put Wi-Fi in every cable set box. And I literally went home and said, “Tell me again — what’s Wi-Fi?”
And I literally went home and said, ‘Tell me again — what’s Wi-Fi?’
So the tech folks have seen WiFi as the way to untether. And what better reason to untether than entertainment content? So there’s nobody better positioned than the in-home Wi-Fi purveyor.
As we’ve said, we’re looking. We don’t have news today, but we have been looking at our relationship with Verizon and Sprint and others where we have the right to wholesale the network and marry it with our Wi-Fi, and we’re going to experiment in that area, and that’s sort of what you’re reading about.
Blodget: If I have the good fortune of living in a Comcast market, are you going to sell me my phone and voice and everything else?
Roberts: We might. We’ve experimented with that before. It hasn’t been a huge success in the past, but we have bundled it with our broadband.
Blodget: So let’s talk about NBC. One of the “potential for public humiliation” predictions that I made before is that TV networks are basically screwed. You own a very, very high-quality group of them. Sure, next year is an election year, and the Olympics, everything’s probably OK. Do you agree, long term, that there’s just going to be huge problems there?
Roberts: A couple years ago, cable networks were the greatest things in the world. Now you’re telling me they’re going to go out of business. Or broadcast networks. Broadcast has lost viewing for 20 years, and their advertising revenues are more in 2015 than 20 years ago and every year in between. So you made the statement earlier that “money follows eyeballs.” That seems pretty logical to me. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way people buy ads, because they need to aggregate eyeballs on Thursday night if they’re going to open a movie on Friday. And who has the most eyeballs, even if it’s a shrinking number, has proved to get more of that money than just their share of the eyeballs.
Blodget: You just gave us this amazing demo where you said into the remote, “Show me the highlights of the game.” I didn’t see any ads, I didn’t hear you say, “Show me the ads!” in the game.
Roberts: So, fair enough. And I think that’s a question of how heavy is the ad load, how targeted is the ad? So one of the initiatives that we’re working on that we think we’re kind of well positioned to help lead is, how do you make the ads more relevant?
We have a broad, well-positioned company so when “Minions” comes out, it can be in theme parks all over the world. We own Fandango. We can advertise on a network. We can have the characters pop up on the Golf Channel. We did all those things with something we call “Symphony,” and that’s why “Jurassic World” was the most watched movie in China history in terms of any American movie. That’s why we had three movies that made $1 billion a year.
Blodget: Everybody loves Comcast stock. If you want to be impressed, call up the chart — it’s just up and to the right. It’s incredible. But I want to ask a very specific question. So if everybody on X1 does what you just did, and that’s the way they watch stuff, can you replace the revenue that you are ultimately going to lose from advertising?
Roberts: Yeah, because, by the way, we have the top 100 shows on demand, but we don’t let you fast forward for the first three days. And sorry, but it’s kind of that question you said: Will there be a trade-off in wireless where everything isn’t free? And we haven’t had very many complaints and you could go DVR that show and fast forward. But if you just want to pull it up anytime you want, that’s the rights deal that we were able to make with the studios that make those top 100 shows and pretty much what’s universally been followed.
One of the issues is it’s just not quite as black and white. Along comes Netflix with no commercials, and consumers change their behaviour.
Blodget: When I ask your customers, “What should I ask Brian?” they say, “Ask him about these data caps. They’re driving me crazy!” Why data caps? And what about this accusation that you don’t charge for your own data, but you clobber people when they watch Netflix?
Roberts: First of all, we’re very consistent. We’re trialing this. Nothing’s changed. Again, there’s no news today, but they’re not a cap. We don’t want anybody to ever not want to stay connected on our network, but just as with every other thing in your life, if you drive 100,000 miles or 1,000 miles, you buy more gasoline. If you turn on the air conditioning to 60 vs. 72, you consume more electricity. The same is true for usage, so I think the same for a wireless device. The more bits you use, the more you pay.
So we have put in very high levels in test markets where something around 5% of the customers are affected to start with. Again, the reality so far has been that this doesn’t affect 95% of the customers right off the bat. And then the 5% for some extra money, we’re testing different numbers, $30 to $35, some amount, $10 in some cases, you can go buy more or buy unlimited. So, we’re just trialing ways to have a balanced relationship. You can watch … hundreds of shows and movies and other things before you hit these levels on many devices. It’s not that different than other industries.
Blodget: So I have a theory. The reason people talk about “data caps” and “It’s terrible,” “They’re screwing me,” and all that stuff is the general reputation of cable companies is “Screw the customer.” You have, in addition to having incredible stock price and great products and all that stuff, have been voted “The Worst Company in America” for customer service and different things like that. So first of all, why is it that companies have such bad reps?
Roberts: Obviously, the first reaction is get defensive. Second reaction is, “What are we going to do about it?”
The first reaction is, get defensive. Second reaction is, what are we going to do about it?
So let me get defensive and then I’ll tell you what we’re going to do about it.
Defensive is: First of all, we’re with all the other cable companies, within spitting distance of each other. As a group, that is what the results show. Therefore, you have to say, “Well, is it something we’re doing?”
Like … “Well, your people didn’t show up on time” and therefore let’s fix that and will that actually change the score and suddenly we’re the best company in America? Google’s free. Facebook is free. We charge, and we collect for every piece of content rights. Every movie star. Every athlete. Every possible piece of content we pay.
We’re up to well in excess of $13 [billion] to $14 billion a year at this one company to procure that content on behalf of the consumer, and it’s grown on average as an industry about 8% to 12% a year compounded for a decade. If you drop a channel, you’re incredibly unpopular, and if you pass along a rate increase, you’re incredibly unpopular. So I think that is the essence, in my opinion, of why the category is perceived and then you make foot faults: You didn’t show up on time or it didn’t work.
So what are we trying to do about it? Let’s play offence on that question. First of all, we’re not satisfied and
all the energy that we were going to put into Time Warner has gone into creating a better experience and now creating a better service experience. So the gentleman who ran X1 is now head of customer experience and we have ways that you take your mobile device and you can schedule your tech, you can reboot your box, you can see where your tech is at — just like Uber with our tech tracker — and you can rate them at the end. We want you to do that. You can get a follow-up. We automatically have GPS so that if we don’t show up on time, you get a $20 credit on your bill. You don’t have to ask for it. It just automatically happens. And we have many … initiatives. We’ve seen tremendous improvement and that is why I think our churn was down and why we had the best sales in nine years.
Blodget: What I hear you say is there’s a distinct change in the last couple years. Because I was very curious about this. I thought, “Well, in theory, maybe people just don’t like monopolies. They’re a monopoly and everybody hates monopolies — power and all that stuff — so that’s why they have a bad rep.” So I asked an expert in the cable industry. And I’m going to read you a quote that there’s a backhanded compliment in here, too.
Roberts: Oh, that’s nice. Nice way to start.
Blodget: So “customer service needs to be part of your culture. The top guys need to say it over and over again. They don’t.” This is referring to Comcast. “Their culture is ‘beat up everybody you do business with,'” which was very interesting and there is a backhanded compliment in there, which is that you built this amazing company and so forth, and yet we see X1 — fantastic product — so is this five years out of date?
Roberts: I think it’s two years out of date. We saw a lot of that kind of commentary during the Time Warner consideration. But I think we’ve harnessed that and said, “OK, let’s prove them wrong.” And also, “Let’s accept the fact that every executive, including myself, needs to be trained on customer service.
Budget meetings begin with not how much is cash flow growing, not how many subscribers am I adding, but here’s what I’m doing to improve service. Here’s what my scores are. Here’s what my goals are. Here’s my on-time reliability, my network reliability, my calls that are answered within so much time, and first-call resolution.
Blodget: I called one of the smartest investors I know — media, cable, everything — also, he’s in Silicon Valley. I said, “Comcast! Stock’s just going up into the right. Should I buy it? Is it smooth sailing forever?” And he said, “Whoa, I would not want to be running that company, lots of challenges, two core businesses under assault” — we’ve talked about the TV networks — “but even the incredible broadband business: You should see some of the technology out of here — dense, mesh networking, WIMAX, all sorts of problems coming not next year, but five to 10 years down the road. Big problems.” Is this just Silicon Valley hype? Is there anything coming that could destroy your business?
Roberts: Oh, my gosh, you can’t run one of these companies and not worry full time.
You can’t run one of these companies and not worry full time.
Andy Grove had the great book “Only the Paranoid Survive.” So put me in that club. My father survived the Depression, and it scarred him to scar me — thank you — with the same mentality that you could lose it all tomorrow. We take absolutely nothing for granted. We have an incredible company. I don’t know about the stock to the right, the stock to the left. I try my best not to think that way. We’ve had quarter after quarter, year after year, of innovation and success, so my answer to your question is real simple. It’s going to be corny. It’s all about who your team is and who your people are.
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