Comcast to telecoms: Bring it on!
CEO of the largest cable firm dismisses threat from Bells, defends Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons.
By Paul R. La Monica, senior writer

NEW YORK ( Cable company stocks have been under siege for the past year due largely to concerns that telecoms are going to eat their lunch with lower-priced video offerings.

But the head of the nation's largest cable firm dismissed the threat from the likes of Verizon (Research), AT&T (Research) and BellSouth (Research) during a speech in New York Wednesday.

Pulling the plug: Investors have soured on the prospects for top cable firm Comcast during the past year.
Pulling the plug: Investors have soured on the prospects for top cable firm Comcast during the past year.

Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast (Research), which ended 2005 with 21.5 million subscribers, said that he doesn't worry about competition from the phone companies. Instead, he said the biggest challenge is from satellite TV companies like DirecTV and EchoStar.

"Today, satellite TV is a real competitor," he said.

Roberts, speaking at the Media Summit New York conference, had especially harsh words for Verizon, which has begun offering television programming in some of Comcast's markets through a fiber-optic service called FiOS.

"I think it does not show any economic promise," Roberts said, when asked about Verizon's efforts. "In the last 10 years, it has not gotten cheaper to string fiber optics to the home." He predicted that Verizon would wind up spending "gobs of money" to be only a fourth-tier player in video.

Verizon will have a chance to rebut Roberts's claims on Thursday. Its chairman and CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, will be the featured speaker at the Media Summit New York show that day.

Roberts also lamented how his company's stock, which fell more than 20 percent last year and is trading near its 52-week low, is under-appreciated by investors.

He said investors are acting "like the sky is falling" even though he thinks Comcast should continue to generate healthy levels of revenue and cash flow growth as the company adds more subscribers for newer products like high-speed Internet access and digital-phone service.

"If you could divorce yourself from the stock price, we're doing well," he said.

And in another jab at the Bells, Roberts promised that Comcast would heavily promote its digital-phone service this year and added that he did not see a need to cut prices to compete with the phone companies.

"There is a perception that cable companies have the best products so we can charge the most," he said.

Roberts also said that Comcast will continue to build up its content business. The company owns cable channels E! Entertainment Television, Style Network and the Golf Channel. It was also a partner in a consortium led by Sony (Research) that bought film studio MGM in 2004.

But Roberts would not say if Comcast was looking to make any extremely big moves to acquire more programming prowess, something along the lines of its surprise, unsolicited takeover bid for Walt Disney (Research) two years ago. Disney rebuffed the offer and Comcast walked away. "We've long ago moved on," Roberts said. "We're very bullish on our business."

Roberts ended his presentation with a defense of one of his cable company colleagues, Time Warner (Research), and its CEO Dick Parsons.

Comcast and Time Warner are teaming up to buy the assets of bankrupt cable provider Adelphia, a transaction that is expected to close later this year.

On Tuesday, activist shareholder Carl Icahn presented a plan to break-up the media conglomerate into four separate firms, including one for Time Warner Cable, which is the nation's second largest cable company. Icahn has been particularly vocal in his criticism of Parsons's management of Time Warner. (Time Warner also owns

"I think Time Warner is a marvelous company and I think Dick Parsons is a terrific, quality person," Roberts said.

Roberts added that the cable company has done an outstanding job of adding customers for new services and that he thought Parsons should be commended for cleaning up Time Warner's AOL Internet division.

For more about Icahn's plan for Time Warner, click here.

For a look at why FORTUNE thinks Verizon's CEO is on the hot seat, click here.

The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan. Top of page

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