King of Cable is no Mickey Mouse

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The Independent Online

Brian Roberts may not be as well known as Rupert Murdoch or Michael Eisner or, for that matter, Mickey Mouse. He is a businessman, above all, not prone to evangelising any kind of vision about the future of world's media. He avoids the limelight. Without question, however, he is the King of Cable.

Comcast, founded by his father, Ralph Roberts, 83, in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1963, has grown into the most formidable cable company in the United States. It is a transformation that has been realised single-handedly by Mr Roberts Jnr. Already twice the size of its nearest rival, Time Warner Cable, it has 21 million subscribers in 35 states. It dominates the cable industry in the eastern US and has sewn up markets elsewhere, including in Chicago and San Francisco.

Mr Roberts, 44, just named as America's best chief executive officer by Institutional Investor magazine, has managed this with a string of shrewd deals - none on the epic scale of the proposed takeover of Disney - that have reinforced its grip on the market and, above all, kept its financial books healthy. At the end of 2001, it gobbled up the ailing cable holdings of AT&T and turned them into a money-making asset for Comcast.

Mr Roberts has proved to critics that cable for television can hold its ground not just in delivering programming, against competition from satellite providers such as Mr Murdoch's recently acquired DirecTV, but also in capturing the broadband internet market. Comcast is now America's biggest high-speed internet provider with five million customers.

All this is not so shabby for a man who had to beg his father to be allowed to join the firm. (The Roberts family controls 33 per cent of Comcast's voting shares.) Ralph, whose first business was selling belts and jewellry, relented but on condition that his son start at the bottom. His first job was climbing telephone poles to install new cable.

Rumours have been circulating for months that Mr Roberts had Disney in his sights, and he showed yesterday that he understands an opportunity when he sees one. Mickey Mouse has been looking a little disoriented of late and here comes Mr Roberts to take his hand.