Better positioning itself as a mega-MSO, Comcast Corp. has replaced its veteran programming gatekeeper with Matt Bond, AT&T Broadband's former head of programming and most recently the chief of distribution for Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network.
Comcast's switch of senior vice president of programming Tom Hurley for Bond came as a surprise to many cable-network officials last week. Hurley, who has been with Comcast since 1990, will remain at the MSO as president of the Comcast Digital Programming Center; Bond's job and title is executive vice president of programming.
As such, Bond will be one of the most powerful executives in the cable industry, able to use Comcast's huge subscriber base — more than 21 million homes, now that it's acquired AT&T Broadband — as leverage to seek discounts and lower license fees from programmers.
Comcast already seems to be taking a hard line with cable networks, filing suit a few weeks ago against Starz Encore Group LLC over the pay service's old deal with AT&T.
Most recently, Bond was sitting on the programmers' side of the table, trying to cut deals for YES. The startup New York City-area regional sports network failed to close a carriage agreement with Cablevision Systems Corp., sparking a nasty public battle between the MSO's CEO, James Dolan, and YES chairman Leo J. Hindery Jr.
Hindery, Bond's boss at AT&T Broadband and Tele-Communications Inc., recruited Bond for YES, which has filed an antitrust suit against Cablevision.
"We're pleased for Matt," Hindery said of Bond's move to Comcast. "It's the biggest job in the industry in his area."
Hurley's replacement by Bond was particularly shocking since, according to sources, Hurley recently told business associates that he had just signed a contract renewal as Comcast's program chief.
"Tom has been boasting to people about his new contract," one source said. "And Comcast is all about having yours and company loyalty: Every single regional division head now is a Comcast veteran. So I'm baffled."
Bond and Hurley couldn't be reached for comment last week, but Comcast described Hurley's job change as a promotion. Cable unit president Steve Burke had kind words for him and his new role at the Comcast Digital Programming Centers, formerly AT&T Digital Media Centers.
At the digital center, which includes the Headend in the Sky digital-distribution service, Hurley will be responsible for programming deals related to new revenue, such as streaming media and interactive television.
He's expected to remain in Philadelphia.
"This is a terrific opportunity for Tom to lead an area that will be increasingly important to our company's future, and it's wonderful to welcome Matt to our already strong programming team," Burke said in a prepared statement.
Some see demotion
But a number of network officials viewed Hurley's job change as a demotion compared with the role Bond will have, shepherding carriage deals for 21 million homes.
Programmers consider both Bond and Hurley to be tough, savvy contract negotiators. "They're both very strong," a source said.
Bond was known for having a less confrontational, less brusque, manner than Hurley.
"With Matt, he's as good anybody in this business negotiating and fighting for his company," one cable-network official said. "But he's genuinely nice. You can fight with him on Friday and then go to a football game with him that weekend."
Bond's fans also called him more creative, with more of a strategic view and an eye for the big picture than Hurley, in terms of programming. That broader vision and expertise will be a plus — and can be tapped into — now that Comcast is moving aggressively into the content business.
Comcast not only has stakes in existing channels such as QVC and E! Entertainment Television, but has launched networks, like the fledgling video game-themed G4, this year.
One source also claimed that Comcast officials had been impressed with the job that Bond, a lawyer, did on AT&T Broadband's affiliation agreements with networks, deals Comcast had access to after its merger with AT&T.
"With 21 million subs, you can't just have a guy beating everyone up," one source said. "You have to have someone smart enough and creative enough to get a deal done. And Matt has got strategic vision. He's not just a grinder doing deals."
Added another industry insider: "He's revered by both programmers and operators. He left AT&T with nothing but a good taste in everybody's mouth."
R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this report.