Cable's Quiet Mogul

Brian Roberts began tagging along with his father on Saturdays to the family cable-television business, Comcast Inc., when he was 8, almost 32 years ago. But he didn't fully grasp cable's powerful appeal until many years later when his dad, Ralph, packed him off to help run the Comcast system in Flint, Mich. Although one of every five Flint residents was jobless, customers kept signing up for Comcast's 35 channels. "It taught me that cable was recession-proof," Roberts, now Comcast's president, recalls.

His appreciation of the power of cable became monumentally evident last week. In a deal eclipsing even AT&T's purchase of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., Philadelphia-based Comcast sealed a $60 billion agreement to buy MediaOne. The combination will create the second largest cable operator, with $8 billion in annual revenue and 11 million subscribers. Comcast also gets MediaOne's 25 percent stake in Time Warner's HBO and Warner Bros. studio, to add to its majority stake in the QVC home-shopping channel and minor holding in E! Entertainment. Media analyst Jessica Reif-Cohen of Merrill Lynch describes the move as "a transforming deal for Comcast" that "vaults the company into the major, major leagues" alongside TCI and Time Warner, the biggest operator.

What the transaction does for Brian Roberts is even more dramatic. Three months shy of turning 40, he has leapt into the front ranks of an industry that is finally ushering in an era of profound changes in communications and home entertainment. After years of hype, cable TV is becoming much more than three-dozen channels of reruns and cooking shows. With billions of dollars of investments in technology upgrades, it is slowly going digital and broadband, offering cable-modem services that could make good on the futuristic promises of interactive TV, movies-on-demand and e-commerce. Upwards of 200 channels are available in some cable-TV homes, as is cable-phone service, cable digital radio and PC connections to the Internet that operate at eye-blink speed. "It just takes the Internet from the World Wide Wait to an incredible array of content with just a click," Roberts says.

Roberts would appear to be an unlikely guy to hasten the arrival of cable's gee-whiz age. Widely considered a financial alchemist, he is steadfastly flashless, eschewing Hamptons-hopping for summer weekends on the New Jersey shore with his wife and three kids. He idolizes his 79-year-old father, who handed him the company reins in 1990, and rarely forgoes an opportunity to publicly express that adoration. "Punch me in the face if I change," Roberts says, pledging to remain unaffected by his newfound mogul status.

In his own quiet way, though, Roberts began aggressively changing the face of Comcast and the industry in the early 1990s. And for all his unassuming manner, he has done deals--and sometimes tangled--with the media world's most formidable players. It was Roberts who lured Barry Diller, the famed media tycoon, to join QVC in 1992. That move helped transform downscale home shopping into electronic retailing. With Diller on board, Roberts backed QVC in a fierce though failed battle with Sumner Redstone's Viacom to buy Paramount. In perhaps his first public display of toughness, he opposed Diller's later move to buy CBS, a clash that prompted Diller to leave QVC.

Roberts was also the catalyst behind a transaction that proved to be an extraordinary endorsement of cable, rather than phone lines, as the pre-eminent communications pathway into the home in the Digital Age. In 1997, he persuaded Bill Gates to have Microsoft invest $1 billion in Comcast, producing a dramatic rise in all cable stocks. Construction of the cable broadband pipeline "really got started when Gates said the technology works," Roberts says. But the Gates association also led to a collision between Roberts and TCI's John Malone, the brilliant but brass-knuckled cable titan. Roberts and Malone have a long history as partners in cable deals. But to Malone's dismay, Roberts was linked with Gates in an abortive effort to acquire a controlling stake in TCI from the heirs of the company's late founder. Malone ended up fashioning his own deal with the heirs. And according to Roberts, they've patched up their differences.

Now the biggest challenge for Brian Roberts is to patch Comcast's 11 million customers into cable's digital future. And the smart money in the media world is betting that the onetime kid cable apprentice has grown up to the task.