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Network Deal-Maker

1/26/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

Amy Banse followed in her late father's footsteps, as did one of her brothers, when she became an attorney.

"My father was one of my earliest idols," Philadelphia-bred Banse, 42, said. "He was general counsel for Merck [& Co.] for many years. He was a lawyer, and there is no question that is the reason I went to law school."

Banse, a graduate of Harvard University and then Temple Law School, joined Comcast Corp. in 1991 as an in-house attorney in the MSO's programming department. But Banse was soon itching to become more involved in the nuts and bolts of the business, to go beyond her lawyerly duties. Comcast president Brian Roberts gave her that chance and her star has continued to rise.

From 1994 to 1997, Banse worked on Comcast's deals to invest in cable-network assets, including E! Entertainment Television, The Golf Channel, Speedvision and Outdoor Life. With that portfolio expanding, Banse told Roberts that Comcast needed one person to manage it.

"He said, 'Fine, you do it,'" Banse recalled. "And I said great because I didn't want to stay a lawyer. I very much wanted to make the transition into being a business person. And I jumped on the opportunity."

From 1997 on, Banse has served as vice president and head of Comcast's programming investment department, the person in charge of the company's video channel assets. And today, with Comcast vowing to launch a few networks a year, Banse is the executive largely determining which cable channels the MSO will bankroll and roll out.

She just signed off on Comcast's new coventure with Radio One Inc., which will launch a cable network targeted to African-Americans later this year.

"I'm sitting on this platform of 22 million subscribers, and I get to look for people to build new businesses with," Banse said. "I get to look for the best people and the best ideas. That is really exciting."

Banse said her personality is such that she loves to negotiate, which is why she had been so eager to become the deal-making leader.

"Nothing frustrated me more than the fact that the business people would sit around negotiating terms and then go home at 8 o'clock, leaving the lawyers to draft everything," she said. "I have all the fun in the world in a conference room with a bunch of people trying to agree on terms. I am not a particularly good draftsperson."

Banse feels she "lucked into one of the one of the best jobs in Philadelphia and one of the best jobs in the industry" when she left a law firm to join Comcast back in 1991. It was the second job offer a headhunter brought her.

"I had never heard of Comcast," Banse said. "I didn't have cable."

Niche appeal

So far on her watch, Comcast has signed off on the debut of Style, an E! spinoff; G4, a video-gaming network; and most recently, the black-targeted service.

"I like niche networks, particularly if they're targeted to a younger demographic," Banse said. "In a multichannel world, and a world of 350 channels, you're not as dependent on ratings. You can make a go at it with a 0.4, a 0.5, a 0.6 because you can tell the advertiser that you're delivering a pure demographic, which is why G4 fit my model perfectly."

Comcast has several good reasons to be bullish on owning cable networks.

"One, they're good businesses," Banse said. "We've probably put about less than $1 billion into our portfolio of [E!, Style, Outdoor Life, Golf Channel and G4]. They're probably worth $4 billion or $4.5 billion. And we think there are advantages to being vertically integrated and having that kind of diversification."

The as-yet-unnamed black-targeted service will be an entertainment-focused, general-interest channel with a mix of original and acquired programming, according to Radio One CEO Alfred Liggins. Comcast and Radio One will each hold less than a 40 percent stake in the network, which is expected to break even at the end of its third year, or early in its fourth.

Banse, married to a litigator, has two stepchildren and two children with her husband, with their brood ranging in age from 18 to 2 years old. She is the first to acknowledge that it's not easy being a mother of four and an executive, and lamented that Christmas is particularly stressful.

"December is the one month where I kind of hold on for my life," Banse said.

She de-stressed after the holidays this year by heading to the Bahamas with her spouse, without the kids. "Once a year my husband and I try to get away for a long weekend to reconnect," Banse said.

Role models

She counts her father Robert Banse as a role model, for being a self-made man who never forgot his roots. She recalled that there were 500 people — including Merck's CEO and a local gas station owner – at his funeral six years ago.

"He was just one of those people who never lost sight of who he was and where he came from and had an amazing ability to connect with an amazing cross section of people," Banse said. "The gas station owner was one of his closest friends and sought out his counsel and advice just as much as the CEO of Merck."

Comcast chairman Ralph Roberts is another role model. Banse said he has a unique ability to listen.

"When you are talking to Ralph, he will make you believe that at that moment in time, you are the most important person in his world," she said. "As a result, people like him and want to do business with him."

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