Roberts: Comcast Not Taking On ESPN

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Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts squelched any speculation that that the No. 1 MSO in the country was making moves to create a national sports network to rival ESPN, but he stopped short of a flat denial that the company was in talks to add more sports programming to its Outdoor Life Network.

Published reports said last week that Comcast was in talks with the National Hockey League to carry games on OLN.

OLN -- which airs a steady stream of hunting, fishing and competitive barbecue shows for most of the year -- has its biggest ratings winner in July with its coverage of the Tour de France bicycle race. But with the retirement of seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, that ratings strength is expected to wane.

On a conference call with analysts to discuss second-quarter results, Roberts said that while the goal is to improve OLN, it is not his intention to go head-to-head against another network.

“We are not in any way trying to take on some other network directly. That is not the goal,” he added. “The question is: Can we be opportunistic and find a win-win model that enhances distribution, enhances the network’s attractiveness and works hand-in-glove with our distribution partners to make the service more valuable?”

Comcast president and chief operating officer Steve Burke was more blunt.

“The press had said that our strategy is to take on ESPN with Outdoor Life,” Burke said. “ESPN is in such a league of its own and has established such a strong brand and such an amazing franchise with sports fans that it would be impossible for us to compete with ESPN even if we wanted to. What we’re really trying to do is take Outdoor Life -- which has a fair amount of momentum now, based on the Tour de France -- and add to it and make it a better channel.”

Hockey could be a low-cost way for OLN to break into sports programming. ESPN declined an option to carry NHL games this season -- for somewhere between $60 million-$70 million -- and, according to reports, it is looking for a lower price.

Comcast is also said to be in the hunt for a Thursday-Saturday package of eight late-season National Football League games, but that is expected to fetch a much higher price.

Separately, Comcast reported second-quarter results in line with most analysts’ estimates -- revenue increased 10% to $5.6 billion, operating cash flow was up 13% to $2.1 billion and basic subscribers declined by 77,000.

The basic-subscriber decline was expected, given the traditional seasonality of the quarter, when snow birds and student return to their summer residences. And it was below the 92,000 customers Comcast lost in same period last year.

Comcast also added 284,000 digital-cable subscribers in the period and 297,000 high-speed-data customers.

Burke said on the call that Comcast is in “full-deployment mode” for its voice-over-Internet-protocol telephony service, and it is on track to have a voice product available to 15 million homes by the end of the year.

Comcast said it added 15,000 VoIP customers in the second quarter, and it expects to have 250,000 VoIP customers by the end of the year and 1 million voice subscribers by year-end 2006.

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