Comcast's Brian Roberts: The low-key exec who leads a high-profile giant

Comcast (CMCSA) CEO Brian Roberts celebrated his 50th birthday in June by competing in and finishing the Philadelphia Triathlon along with a few top lieutenants. That may be good training for the task at hand.

Roberts, 50, who announced a deal on Thursday to gain control of NBC Universal from General Electric (GE,) may become one of the most powerful media titans in U.S. history, but he's decidedly low-key. Unlike his flashier counterparts in Hollywood, Roberts (pictured, left) doesn't crave the spotlight, and sources say many Comcast employees consider him to be a nice guy (but it's easy find outsiders who have less favorable views).

The Comcast CEO is the son of company founder Ralph J. Roberts (pictured, right). One of five children, Brian is the only one to show any interest in the family business, which the elder Roberts started in 1963. Ralph first brought Brian to the office when he was about 13. And he showed some early promise: When Brian was a teenager, he found an error in Comcast's annual report that eluded the adults. Years later, he showed his willingness to go bold by gobbling up AT&T's (T) cable and broadband assets in 2003, which made Comcast the world's largest cable company.

His mother, Suzanne, is a former actress and playwright. Her name adorns a theater in Philadelphia, and she hosts a TV program aimed at seniors called Seeking Solutions with Suzanne on Comcast's CN8 network. Brian Roberts also has an affinity for pop culture. He has seen about 40 movies this year and is a big fan of the NBC (no surprise there) comedy The Office and the shows on NBC Universal's USA cable channel, according to someone who knows him.

"Really Out of Touch"?

Under his leadership, Comcast took a prominent role in environmental building design with its Comcast Center headquarters, Philadelphia's tallest building. But, of course, not everyone is impressed by his record.

"He grew up with a golden cable-monopoly spoon in his mouth, says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, adding that this has made Roberts "really out of touch" with his company's poor image among customers. "Comcast is widely disliked," says Chester.

Wired dubbed him the "Dark Lord of Broadband" earlier this year following public outcry over claims that Comcast was blocking access by some of its subscribers to file-sharing programs such as BitTorrent. The negative publicity clearly bothered Roberts. He told the magazine that "I honestly don't think we're bad people," Comcast, the No.1 broadband provider, has repeatedly denied that it was trying to improperly block access to certain websites.

Comcast regularly gets in battles over the carriage of cable channels. DirecTV (DTV) has balked at carrying Comcast's Versus sports channel after the cable company hiked its fees to carry the network by 20%. Earlier this year, Comcast agreed to carry the NFL Network, ending a three-year dispute with the National Football League.

"He is very aggressive in protecting what he wants to do," says Art Brodsky, a spokesman for the interest group Public Knowledge and a former telecommunications journalist.

Equal Opportunity Political Donor

Comcast has also clashed with unions trying to organize its largely nonunion workforce. "They are a tough company to deal with," says Jim Spellane, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose Comcast organizing effort with the CWA has been "moving slowly." Comcast estimates that 1,000 of its 100,000-person workforce belong to unions.

Politically, Roberts and Comcast hedge their bets by donating to candidates of both political parties, according to campaign finance records. That's a tactic many businesses take. Records show that he donated to both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2000, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell asked Roberts to chair the committee overseeing the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Rendell is a Democrat, and Roberts keeps his political views to himself. Nonetheless, activists worry that Roberts may try to put his political stamp on NBC programming.

The colossus that the Comcast-NBC Universal tie-up will create is also a big concern to some. "This kind of massive media consolidation will lead to higher prices and fewer independent sources of information," said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst with Consumer's Union, in a press release. "The federal government should approach this merger with deep skepticism."

Roberts' supporters argue that he prides himself on not being a micromanager and as long as things are going well, he stays out of their way. In fact, NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker, who has taken a lot of heat for decisions gone wrong, such as approving The Jay Leno Show, is being retained by Comcast.

Persistence Required

Activists are particularly concerned about whether MSNBC's progressive political voice will be stifled. But as Brodsky notes: "The hew and cry would be hellacious" if MSNBC dumped stars Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow because of the controversy they generate.

Reviving the fortunes of NBC is hardly the first challenge Comcast has faced. For instance, it needed 20 years to bring cable TV to Philadelphia, making it one of the last major cities to get it, says Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Joe DiStefano, who has written a book on the cable giant. "Under a series of mayors, there was no decision made," he says.

Comcast eventually gained a foothold in Philadelphia. Now, it's by far the region's dominant provider. That same level of persistence will be needed with the NBC Universal deal, which is expected to face tough regulatory review. Maybe Roberts had better start training for the Iron Man Triathlon.

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