It’s easy to look at Comcast from the outside and see a big cable company. From that perspective, cable guys — who were always called by broadcasters “pole climbers,” not in a nice way — could be seen as the dumb money in the NBC/Comcast deal.
But a closer look at the guys who made the deal — and who will lead the combined company — reveals something very different.
Certainly you know that Brian Roberts is the son of Ralph Roberts, a self-made cable legend. But the story of Comcast COO Steve Burke — both his lineage and his key role — make the Roberts/Burke duo a powerhouse team of second generation media builders. (Ralph Roberts pictured left, with Brian, centre, and Burke, right, in this 2001 AP photo.)
Need more evidence? Then journey back in time with me to my Breakfast With Dan Burke (Steve’s father) …and why it foretold the future power of Cable TV.
The year was 1986. I was just three years out of college and looking for a foothold in Broadcasting, I found myself invited to an early morning meeting with Dan Burke at ABC.
While you may not remember, ABC was merged with the feisty upstate New York broadcaster Capital Cities, to become Cap Cities/ABC.
Capital Cities began in 1947, when the Hudson Valley broadcasting company licensed WROW radio in Albany, New York. In October 1953 it opened the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area’s second television station, WROW-TV on channel 41. Capital Cities shook the media world announcing the $3.5 billion purchase of ABC on March 18, 1985. ABC was almost four times bigger than Cap Cities.
The management team that pulled off the staggering reverse merger was Steve Murphy and Dan Burke. Burke, as the President of Cap Cities, was known as a legendary builder and a thrifty manger. The story often told was when the duo realised that they had enough money in the early days to buy just half the amount of paint required to cover one of the group’s ageing radio stations. After considering the options, the decision was made — and they painted the side of the building that faced the road. Now they owned ABC.
At my breakfast — which in fact turned out to be a meeting in Burke’s office with a cup of coffee — Burke was warm and generous. I had started my television company in Albany, and he clearly remembered the Capital Region fondly.
He had on his desk a small stack of quarters.
Back then — 1986 or so — he held the quarters between his fingers. I remember clearly him asking me what business I wanted to be in.
“Steve, would you rather be in cable or broadcasting?” the broadcasting pioneer asked. It was a trick question. “Would you rather own the ABC television network or ESPN?” Generously, he didn’t make me answer. “You want ESPN. Because at ABC we wake up every morning with bills for programming we need to pay, and at ESPN we wake up with a whole bunch of cable subscribers paying us a quarter.”
Cable, he explained, was a dual-revenue stream business. I never forgot those words. While betting on ESPN made sense even then, Burke’s vision was far greater — it was all cable — that was the home run. Dan’s son Steve Burke was 28 years old at the time.
Today, the younger Burke is about to take the reigns of the largest and most powerful combined entity in the history of media. Steve Burke, as the chief operating officer of Comcast — will stand side-by-side with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.
The parallels are pretty hard to miss. Both men who grew up the sons of self-made media entrepreneurs, each students of a changing business. And both Brian and Steve are prepared to embrace the challenges and changes that are sure to come along with an opportunity of this size.
Roberts and Burke come by their media chops honestly — as they say.
And that’s a good thing. Because the next chapter in communications technology is going to be full of opportunity and risk.
- They’ll be both the owners of the pipe and the makers and distributors of content.
- They’ll be closely watched by the FCC if they try and limit ‘over the top’ content via broadband, or use their potential power position to control how content flows, or who has access.
- They’ll need to maximise revenue from cable subscribers, while offering value to broadband users.
- There’s plenty of risk — but lots of rewards too.
The next shoe to drop will be Verizon, whose FIOS offering could use to own some brand name content of its own. It’s hard to imagine that Verizon isn’t looking for a potential purchase at Viacom or Disney — but there are only so many integrated media companies left to buy.
Burke and Roberts are truly second-generation moguls. A rare mix of gut and experience, which Comcast will need to build a communications company that has internet DNA, broadcasting guts, and cable content.
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, a NYC-based Web video startup. He has been building and growing consumer-content businesses since 1992. He was the creator and Executive Producer of MTV UNfiltered, a series that was the first commercial application of user-generated video in commercial TV.
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