Backtalk: Burke Converts to Cable


Several months ago, at the National Association ofBroadcasters' conference in Las Vegas, ABC president Bob Iger proclaimed that the oldeconomic model for broadcasting was no longer viable in today's highly competitive battlefor viewers.

Today, in retrospect, it looks like his then-direct report,Steve Burke -- president of ABC Broadcasting and, now, the newly appointed president ofComcast Cable Communications Inc. and senior vice president of Comcast Corp. -- clearlysaw the same handwriting on the wall.

Contrasting broadcast economics with cable during a phonecall about his new appointment last week, Burke said he believes that cable is uniquelypositioned -- at least for now -- to be a big winner, given the strength of itsbroadband-delivery system.

Burke characterizes Comcast as "a special company,flexible and entrepreneurial," with a strong core cable business, coupled with astrong stable of ancillary holdings, like QVC, cellular, sports and retail.

In fact, Comcast, Burke says, has the potential to"become the next Disney," not so much in terms of the kinds of businesses thatit is currently in or entering, but in terms of its growth potential.

For example, Burke is particularly optimistic about thepotential of digital cable and high-speed data.

In fact, he's "enthralled" with the potential ofthe Internet, saying that it's impossible to estimate how big it will be.

"Every 30 years or so, a technology or a businesscomes along that changes everything," he says, referring to the still largelyunknown, but vast, potential growth of future data services.

The son of a dyed-in-the-wool broadcaster, former CapitalCities/ABC president Dan Burke, the younger Burke now has a chance to build a company withhis new boss, Comcast president Brian Roberts, just like his father had with his oldpartner, Tom Murphy.

It will be interesting to see what Burke -- Roberts' thirdhigh-level, big-name hire from outside of cable's mainstream -- will bring to the party.

After all, Barry Diller, whom Roberts had brought in to runand expand QVC, and, later, Rich Frank, whom Roberts brought in to oversee Comcast'sprogramming ventures, didn't leave much of a mark on the company during their respectivebrief tenures.

But that's ancient history, and it doesn't bother Burke,who says programming expansion at Comcast will happen only where it makes sense. In otherwords, it's not currently a high priority.

Nor does his own lack of experience in cable concern him.Burke, who began at Disney by developing the Disney Store chain in 1986, says his toughestchallenge was to fix the deeply troubled EuroDisney theme-park business in 1992 -- abusiness that he had no experience in, either, back then.

If anything, Burke's departure from Disney-owned ABC raisesquestions about a potential "brain drain" at his alma mater, with news of hisdeparture coming one week after word broke about Geraldine Laybourne, who left her post aspresident of Disney/ABC Cable Networks to hang up her own shingle.

Burke's move into cable is clearly another dailyaffirmation of the industry's newfound strength. Remember: It was only a year ago thatcable operators were in the throes of a collective identity crisis.

At last year's National Show in New Orleans, cableoperators -- like insecure self-help counselor Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live-- nervously huddled together, trying to bolster each other up in the face of a"Death Star" that never materialized.

A year later, cable has found its self-confidence again,and that has not gone unnoticed by the outside world.

Months after that funereal convention, Microsoft chairmanBill Gates plunked down $1 billion into Comcast Corp. Shortly thereafter, Wall Streetrallied to cable after what had been a long, dry spell.

Then, the miracle of miracles occurred: Then-newlyappointed Tele-Communications Inc. president and COO Leo J. Hindery Jr. actually saved thenation's largest MSO from becoming another sinking Titanic.

Wall Street was further impressed, and so was Paul Allen,the co-founding chairman of Microsoft, who bought Marcus Cable shortly before this year'sNational Show in Atlanta.

Now, a year later, the broadcasters are sounding more like SNL'sSmalley, suffering their own identify crisis, as they sweat out the final outcome of whatseems to be a slow start for the upfront-buying season, with lower CPMs than usual.