TURMOIL AND TRIUMPH: THE 1990s - Multichannel

TURMOIL AND TRIUMPH: THE 1990s

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The last decade of the 20th century was a time of transition, turmoil and triumph for Comcast. In January of 1990, 31-year-old Brian Roberts took the reins as CEO. But the younger Roberts had only a year to settle into his new corner office when Comcast’s headquarters in Philadelphia’s One Meridian Plaza were badly damaged by fire.

Three fire-fighters died trying to put the blaze out. It took 10 days to get back up and running, according to Brodsky. By the start of the next decade, though, plans would be underway for the new, LEED-certified Comcast Center, which opened in 2005. Comcast has since expanded into the building next door with plans afoot to move into a third building.

The 1990s served up a frenzy of acquisition activity. Comcast bought Maclean Hunter (500,000 subscribers), Scripps Cable (800,000), Prime Cable (430,000) and Jones Intercable (1 million), as well as several smaller operations, eventually making Comcast the third-largest MSO.

The biggest gambit came in 1999 when Comcast tried to buy MediaOne Group for $60 billion. The deal fell through and AT&T Broadband ended up with the company. But Comcast walked away with a $1.5 billion consolation prize and Roberts bided his time before making an even bigger move a few years later.

Comcast also went on a buying binge of sorts, investing in Golf Channel and E! Entertainment Television. The company increased its stake in QVC and launched several regional sports networks around the country.

Meanwhile, the cable industry was getting its lunch handed to it by Congress, which voted to reregulate the industry in 1996 after a long history of pricing and customer-service abuses. Financing dried up; stock prices tumbled; and competition was growing. Long-time The Walt Disney Co. executive Steve Burke joined Comcast as chief operating officer in 1997 and his philosophies, strategies and attitude changed Comcast’s corporate culture and its future.

“The cable guys were generally slow to implement technological upgrades,” Brodsky said. “But Steve came in and said a defensive approach to doing business wouldn’t work anymore and he said we needed to do upgrades as soon as possible. We needed to become a company with new products to offer. Brian agreed. And it worked. It was hard but it worked. We paid a short-term price for what it cost. But he was right.”

Comcast launched its first broadband product, Comcast@Home, in 1996. A year later, the company launched its first digital-TV offering. The innovations — and with the urging of Brian Roberts during an off -handed conversation with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates during the annual Allen & Co. camp for media bigwigs — were enough to convince Microsoft to invest $1 billion in Comcast. The investment was a financial shot in the arm at a time when stock prices were sagging and financing was all but nonexistent. It was also a strong vote of confidence from a very influential investor and it turned the tide not just for Comcast, but for the whole cable industry.

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