As an all-American squash player, Comcast President Brian Roberts knows how important it is to dominate the "T" -- the court's central zone. If you control the "T," you control the game.
Now Roberts controls the "T" of the media world. Last December, he won a hotly contested bidding war for AT&T's cable-TV operations, including its 1.8 million broadband subscribers. The deal was a coup for the ultracompetitive Roberts, who has made it his mission to transform Comcast into a media giant along the lines of Viacom, Disney, or News Corp.
His ambitions are no secret. The name Comcast, after all, is an amalgam of the words "communication" and "broadcast." Roberts wants to dominate both, through the 22 million cable subscribers the new AT&T Comcast will serve, via media holdings such as shopping channel QVC and, of course, with broadband.
UP FROM TUPELO. If the deal is approved -- as expected -- later this year by the Federal Communications Commission, the combined AT&T Comcast will be the largest provider of high-speed Internet service in the U.S., with nearly 3 million subscribers, or nearly one-quarter of the market, and the capacity to serve 29 million customers.
Comcast has come a long way since Roberts' father, Ralph, founded the company in 1963. Then, the regional cable operator had just 1,200 TV subscribers in Tupelo, Miss. Today, Comcast has a market capitalization of $22 billion.
Roberts has trained his whole life for this moment. He has worked at Comcast since 1981, first as a local station controller in Trenton, N.J., then as an assistant general manager in Flint, Mich. In 1990, when he was 30, his father appointed him president. He has performed well. In 1999, he walked away from a deal to buy another cable operator, MediaOne, when AT&T bid up the price. Roberts retreated with a $1.5 billion consolation fee and 2 million AT&T subscribers. Just two years later, he picked up the rest of the subscribers -- at a much-reduced price -- when he won control of AT&T's cable operations.
SWEET DEAL. His power to cut deals also extends to the world of e-business. In August, Roberts masterfully negotiated an arrangement with AOL under which Comcast is said to be getting $35 per month for every AOL subscriber who signs up for its $50-plus per-month broadband service -- along with a cut of advertising, e-commerce, and other revenue from AOL's new broadband offerings. Not bad, considering that Comcast's take from AOL will be only about $5 less per month than it charges its own customers -- and that all marketing and billing expenses will be incurred by AOL.
Next, Roberts' challenge is to deliver on the promise of broadband with such offerings as on-demand video and online gaming. Managing his network to accommodate and promote new services will be crucial as will finding the right price point to attract a mass audience. More than ever, though, Roberts' future is in his own hands -- and it looks bright. By Jane Black in New York