Say what you will about how media moguls will never learn: Comcast CEO Brian Roberts isn't an idiot. So what is he thinking?
BRIAN'S $15 BILLION BET
First, let's review the terms of the bet:
* Comcast is wagering about $15 billion (approximately half in cash and half in equity shares in its cable networks) in exchange for half of the New NBC Universal.
* If Comcast gets more than $15 billion back from the New NBC Universal in a reasonable timeframe, the bet will have paid off.
Comcast gets to keep half of the cash flow of the new NBC Universal each year, less interest costs. In 2009, a crappy year, New NBC Universal will generate about $3 billion of cash flow. Subtract, say, $1 billion of interest payments (on $9 billion of debt), and you're left with net cash flow of about $2 billion a year. Comcast's share of that, therefore, will be about $1 billion a year.
* Let's assume the New NBC continues to grow. Comcast will get its money back in 10 years. Any more cash or remaining value in NBC from then on will be upside.
* Let's assume that the new NBC Universal never grows again. Comcast will get its money back in 15 years.
* Let's assume that the New NBC Universal starts shrinking but doesn't completely fall apart. Comcast will get its money back in 20 years.
* Let's assume that the New NBC Universal completely collapses. Brian Roberts will be proven to have been an idiot.
So that's the bet.
Now, what is Brian Roberts really thinking?
He's thinking: I've got cash coming out of my ears, I know the world is changing, and I've decided to buy myself a hedge.
A hedge against what?
A hedge against two things:
* Further extortionist increases in cable content carriage fees
* The gradual conversion of cable into dumb pipes that just deliver Internet access and IP-video
THE HEDGE AGAINST CABLE PROGRAMMING FEE INCREASES
Specifically, Brian Roberts is thinking that he's sick to death of that bastard Bob Iger at Disney holding him up for higher carriage fees on ESPN, et al, every few years. And, before he bought NBC, Brian was sick to death of that bastard Jeff Zucker holding him up for higher fees on CNBC, et al. Etc.
Now, in the future, if anyone does any holding up, Brian Roberts is:
1) going to cash in, too (because now he owns a lot of cable programming), and
2) going to have more leverage in telling Bob Iger, et al, to take a hike. Until now, if Brian Roberts wanted to tell Bob Iger to take his ESPN and stuff it, he would risk losing a significant percentage of cable subs who are sports addicts. Now, Brian Roberts will be able to say to Bob Iger, "Actually, we've decided to make ESPN a premium channel, because most of our subs are happy with the many offerings of NBC Sports, including our new NBC Sports ESPN-killer. So if you want to jack up your fees, that's fine, we'll ask our subs to pay you for ESPN directly." At which time, Bob Iger, no fool, might say, "I think we'll stick with our current fees."
Either way, Brian Roberts is okay.
Those two hedges, by the way, may well help either the New NBC or the Old Comcast drive more dollars to the bottom line. If this happens, Brian Roberts will get his money back even faster.
THE HEDGE AGAINST CABLE BECOMING A DUMB PIPE AND PROGRAMMING GOING A LA CARTE
Eventually, the current cable TV business is toast. There is NO WAY today's teenagers are going to be shelling out $150 a month to get 500 channels they don't watch when what they do watch is available for free over the Internet. Eventually, therefore, this whole "carriage fee" game is done—or at least radically changed.
But it's going to take a while. At least 10 years.
And all those future adults who are going to be watching TV for free over the Internet in 10 years are still going to need Internet access (or else how are they going to watch?). And Comcast is in a great position to keep providing it.
So, regardless of what happens, Comcast won't go to zero. But if programming goes a la carte, providers like Comcast won't get to mark up channels by buying them at wholesale prices, bundling them together, and selling them at retail anymore. Instead, they'll have to settle for getting, say, $50 a month for providing your Internet access and phone and just letting all the video providers sell to you directly.
Now, providing a fat dumb pipe is not a bad business. And Internet access might be so important at that point that Comcast might be able to jack up prices to, say, $75, with no programming fees (which would be less than you pay for your internet access and phone now).
But it might be a worse business than the one cable has today. In which case, Brian will have hedged his bets by taking a big chunk of cash and buying something else with it.
OF COURSE, THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A GUARANTEE
How can Brian Roberts lose?
A couple of ways.
First, he can blow the execution, like AOL Time Warner did. But this is a business that Brian already knows, and it won't involve smashing two completely different cultures that hate each other together. So the execution risk is less.
Second, cable can become a dumb pipe AND the TV programming business can blow up like the newspaper business—causing Brian Roberts to lose on both sides.
If that happens, Brian Roberts would have been better off selling the whole thing and buying a fertilizer company.
But Brian Roberts is a media mogul. And there isn't a media mogul on earth who would give up being a media mogul to run a fertilizer company.