Comcast, Then and Now

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Comcast had scheduled its first-ever “media day” a while before the analyst reports started coming out, saying cable stocks were getting close to historic lows in terms of cash-flow multiples.

At one point CEO Brian Roberts — answering a question about phone companies' latest plans to add lots of fiber and get into multichannel video — pointed out he wasn't holding an investormeeting and didn't need to persuade the reporters there that Comcast could weather competition and hit financial goals.

But Roberts & Co. have gotten very good at telling their story to Wall Street at “investor days” that were the model for last Wednesday's session with about two dozen reporters.

This was, in fact, an exercise in persuasion. The pitch: Comcast has its act together, has a cohesive strategy and product set and, the Disney dalliance over, loves cable with good reason.

No question Comcast embraces the leadership role that, as cable president Steve Burke pointed out, historically belongs to the biggest cable company. And Comcast, as Burke also noted, has twice as many customers as No. 2 (Time Warner Cable). It's a “smart and fast follower,” in Burke's phrase, no more.

Sure there were financial successes to point out, but Comcast has always been known for them, so co-CFO John Alchin raced through his presentation, while others like CTO Dave Fellows and senior VP Rian Wren lingered on topics like network capacity and how Internet-protocol phone service will bring Internet-like convenience to calling.

What Comcast isn't known for is product and service innovation — it hadn't led the way on telephony (other than the phone customers they bought), on interactive TV, on digital video recorders, on other things other companies championed in order to get people to love cable and spend more on it.

But there was Burke last week, first pointing out that senior VP Mark Coblitz had been helping lead industry movement on IP telephony for years, and then asking: “Wouldn't it be great if you could get all of your messages, whether they're e-mail messages or instant-messaging messages or telephone voice messages, all in the same place? Call it unified messaging.”

“That's one area that we're excited about,” Burke said. “But we have about 10 of those.”

And there was Roberts saying Comcast should be able (aided by lower-cost set-tops: using clout to get better terms from vendors is a time-honored cable tradition) to entice all its customers onto a digital platform in five years or so.

“We ought to do be able to do that and at the same time someday have 25, 50 channels of high-def TV,” he said. “We ought to be able to do that and someday be able to have 100 Megabits of speed on a cable modem.”

Steve Burke's summation on competition: “Bring it on. We're ready. We're working on a lot of things that are exciting. And we're very bullish on our company and our future.”

As some of those catchy ads say: “That was then. This is Comcast.”