Made Com­cast a media ti­tan

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Meg James

When belt­less polyester pants be­came the rage in the early 1960s, Ralph J. Roberts knew it was time to move on. He sold his com­pany that spe­cial­ized in men’s belts and sus­penders and plunked the pro­ceeds into a “com­mu­nity an­tenna tele­vi­sion sys­tem” — a small net­work of an­ten­nas in Tu­pelo, Miss., that, for $5 a month, lib­er­ated frus­trated view­ers from fuzzy pic­tures by pro­vid­ing clear TV sig­nals.

Over the next few decades, Roberts turned that hum­ble net­work into Com­cast Corp., the na­tion’s largest ca­ble TV com­pany, and built it into far more than a sup- plier of TV chan­nels by reach­ing into new fron­tiers of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, in­clud­ing high-speed In­ter­net ser­vice.

His com­pany also owns NBCUniver­sal, the en­ter­tain­ment com­pany that touches tens of mil­lions of peo­ple each day through its tele­vi­sion net­works, Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios theme parks and a movie stu­dio that churns out such big hits as “Juras­sic World.”

“Ralph Roberts, and just a small hand­ful of oth­ers, are re­ally re­spon­si­ble for build­ing the mod­ern ca­ble tele­vi­sion busi­ness that we know to­day,” said long­time an­a­lyst Craig Mof­fett. “He built a huge and pow­er­ful com­pany. But Ralph re­ally didn’t fit the mold of a media mogul.”

Roberts died Thurs­day of nat­u­ral causes in Philadelphia, the com­pany said.

He was 95.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Roberts helped lead the charge that con­sol­i­dated the ca­ble in­dus­try, which saw thou­sands of mom-and-pop com­pa­nies across the coun­try rolled up into just a few large providers, driv­ing up prices for con­sumers. So pow­er­ful is Com­cast that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment this year be­gan gear­ing up to fight the com­pany’s pro­posed $45bil­lion takeover of Time Warner Ca­ble, which pro­vides In­ter­net and ca­ble tele­vi­sion ser­vice in Los An­ge­les. Rather than bat­tle the gov­ern­ment, Com­cast aban­doned its bid.

The move was a rare de­feat for a com­pany that has spent decades ag­gres­sively scoop­ing up other com­pa­nies and in­vest­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in fiber-op­tic lines, which have be­come the dom­i­nant form of de­liv­er­ing tele­vi­sion and high-speed In­ter­net ser­vice.

Com­cast, which is val­ued at $156 bil­lion, is known for its hard-hit­ting, hard­knuckle ne­go­ti­a­tions with other com­pa­nies and, at times, lack­lus­ter cus­tomer ser­vice.

But that’s not how the af­fa­ble, bow-tie-wear­ing Roberts will be re­mem­bered, in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives said.

“Ralph will be re­mem­bered for his char­ac­ter. He was a class act,” long­time ca­ble ex­ec­u­tive Leo Hin­dery told The Times on Fri­day.

“It’s a long way from Tu­pelo to Philadelphia, and then mak­ing it to the top of the in­dus­try heap,” Hin­dery said. “Oth­ers would not have been able to pull it off — and they didn’t. But Ralph set the tone for his com­pany, and for the en­tire in­dus­try, that per­sists to­day.”

Among his strengths was a gen­er­ous na­ture and a gen­uine op­ti­mism for the fu­ture of the busi­ness.

Steve Burke, chief ex­ec­u­tive of NBCUniver­sal who has worked at Com­cast for 17 years, said Roberts was an as­tute busi­ness­man who en­cour­aged his ex­ec­u­tives to make the best deal for the com­pany. And even in his 80s, af­ter turn­ing over the com­pany’s reins to his son Brian, Roberts would at­tend strat­egy meet­ings.

“You might think the old­est guy in the room would be the most con­ser­va­tive, but he wasn’t,” Burke said. “He would say, ‘This sounds like a won­der­ful idea.’ He al­ways be­lieved in in­vest­ing in the busi­ness.”

Roberts be­gan groom­ing his son early, tak­ing the school-age boy to meet­ings with in­vest­ment bankers when they were do­ing deals. But af­ter Brian Roberts grad­u­ated from the Whar­ton School, he didn’t start out at cor­po­rate head­quar­ters. In­stead, Ralph Roberts sent his son out in the field to in­stall ca­ble lines in peo­ple’s homes.

“Brian could have started in a cor­ner of­fice, but he didn’t,” Hin­dery said. “Ralph told him that you will share my val­ues, and your mother’s val­ues, or you won’t work here. A lot of fathers try to pass their legacy and fam­ily busi­ness to their sons but few have done it bet­ter than Ralph.”

Con­se­quently, Com­cast has not dis­played some of the fam­ily ten­sions and suc­ces­sion bat­tles that have flared up at other media com­pa­nies such as the Sum­ner Red­stone-con­trolled Vi­a­com or Ru­pert Mur­doch’s 21st Cen­tury Fox.

“Ralph Roberts was a one-of-a-kind; con­sum­mate gen­tle­man, busi­ness­man, fa­ther, hus­band,” John Malone, another god­fa­ther of the mod­ern-day ca­ble busi­ness, said in a state­ment. “Most of all, I will miss the smile, the bow tie, and the gen­tle sense of hu­mor.”

Roberts was born March 13, 1920, in New York City to Robert and Sara Wahl Roberts. His fa­ther owned a string of drug­stores and even had a chauf­feur.

From the time he was small, Ralph Roberts was mak­ing deals. “The first busi­ness thing I re­mem­ber is dig­ging up my mother’s marigolds and selling them to the neigh­bors,” he told the Philadelphia In­quirer in 1996. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be in some kind of busi­ness.”

He learned early on that for­tunes can be fleet­ing. The De­pres­sion came, fol­lowed by fam­ily tragedy. His fa­ther died in 1933, and the fam­ily lost its for­tune. His mother moved with her two younger chil­dren, in­clud­ing Ralph, to Penn­syl­va­nia to be closer to her fam­ily.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, Roberts en­rolled in the Whar­ton School of busi­ness at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. He worked at a va­ri­ety of jobs, and rel­ished the ones that al­lowed him to make deals. For ex­am­ple, he started a busi­ness pro­vid­ing bus sched­ules with ad­ver­tise­ments and hired other stu­dents to slip them un­der dor­mi­tory doors. He would buy eggs from farms in nearby New Jersey and sell them to fra­ter­nity houses at the univer­sity.

Roberts grad­u­ated in 1941 and joined the Navy, serv­ing mostly at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In 1942, he mar­ried Suzanne Fleisher.

Af­ter four years in the Navy, he tried var­i­ous busi­nesses, in­clud­ing de­vel­op­ing a new golf put­ter. When Bob Hope came to Philadelphia, Roberts man­aged to get the leg­endary co­me­dian to pose with the put­ter for a pic­ture, ac­cord­ing to the Philadelphia In­quirer.

Roberts then mar­keted it as the “Bob Hope Put­ter.”

He went on in 1950 to work for en­tre­pre­neur Wil- liam Ben­ton, who owned the Muzak Corp., which, like the ca­ble busi­ness Roberts would later en­ter, worked on a sub­scrip­tion ba­sis. But he wanted to run his own busi­ness and bought the Pi­o­neer Belt & Sus­pender Co., which dis­trib­uted men’s ac­ces­sories to about 15,000 stores. He sold Pi­o­neer in 1961 when he re­al­ized that fewer peo­ple would need belts — or sus­penders — and made a lit­tle more than $1 mil­lion.

A chance meet­ing with a bro­ker in Philadelphia led Roberts to his next in­vest­ment: the Tu­pelo an­tenna com­pany. He was in­trigued that peo­ple would pay $5 a month for a sub­scrip­tion to three TV chan­nels they could get over the air for free.

Roberts named the com­pany Com­cast, a mash-up of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and broad­cast.

“Com­cast is a com­pany that will live for­ever, and that’s be­cause of Ralph,” Burke, the NBCUniver­sal chief, said. “He was a tough, as­tute busi­ness­man who wanted his com­pany to be suc­cess­ful. But he also was a lovely and gen­tle man who was very hum­ble.”

Roberts’ fi­nal visit to Com­cast’s Philadelphia head­quar­ters came last week.

“It would take Ralph 20 min­utes to get to his of­fice from the time he en­tered the build­ing,” Burke said. “He would stop and talk to the se­cu­rity guard, and then he would talk to some­one out­side the el­e­va­tor, and then he would run into some­one else and stop to talk to them. That was just the way he was.”

Be­sides his wife of more than 70 years, Suzanne, Roberts is sur­vived by four chil­dren and eight grand­chil­dren.

Manuel Balce Ceneta AP

IT ALL BE­GAN when Ralph Roberts bought a small net­work of TV an­ten­nas in the 1960s.

Richard Drew As­so­ci­ated Press

AS­TUTE BUSI­NESS­MAN Ralph Roberts, left, groomed his son Brian, cen­ter, to take over the com­pany, bring­ing him to busi­ness meet­ings when he was a school­boy. “Com­cast … will live

for­ever, and that’s be­cause of Ralph,” said NBCUniver­sal head Steve Burke.

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