At a dinner 12 years ago in Redmond, Wash., Brian L. Roberts challenged the richest man in the world to invest in his business — cable TV.
Other guests, cable industry executives older than Mr. Roberts, then a 30-something scion of a cable industry family that owns Comcast, looked at their shoes. Someone quickly changed the subject by asking Bill Gates about his vacation plans.
Two days later, one of Mr. Gates’s deputies at Microsoft called Mr. Roberts, and a month later the company invested $1 billion in Comcast , a vote of confidence in an industry that was struggling to adapt to the Internet and slow to build broadband services.
“It was a shot heard ’round the world in our business,” Mr. Roberts told an audience at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater, several years later.
Mr. Roberts is now on the verge of his next big moment, a takeover of NBC Universal (owner of CNBC). The $30 billion deal, the final details of which are still being negotiated, will catapult Comcast from being the No. 1 cable operator to a major producer of television and movies, and will elevate Mr. Roberts to the top ranks of the media industry elite.
It will be much tougher than panhandling Bill Gates.
For Mr. Roberts, who in June celebrated his 50th birthday by competing in his first triathlon, acquiring NBC Universal will be the capstone of years of carefully plotting how to control both the distribution of content into homes and the production of it.
The path from Mr. Roberts’s moment with Mr. Gates to his prominence today is terrain marked by successes big and small — the biggest being the $30 billion deal for AT&T Broadband in 2002, which made Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia, the largest cable company in the country. It was also marked by one big failure, a hostile takeover bid for the Walt Disney Company in 2004.
Mr. Roberts thought he had received signals from a Disney board member at the time that the company would be receptive to a takeover offer. But when he informed Michael D. Eisner, then Disney’s chief executive, of his plans in a telephone call, Mr. Eisner, reading from a script drafted by lawyers while sitting in his New York apartment, said the company was not for sale.
Mr. Roberts, still thinking that there was interest in a deal among Disney board members, proceeded with a bruising takeover battle that led to Comcast’s withdrawing its bid.
After that defeat, Mr. Roberts took a small-ball approach to building the company’s content assets — focusing on networks like Versus and the Golf Channel.
He still harbored ideas of a big play for content, but he learned that his approach had to be friendly, as Comcast’s own shareholders reacted negatively to the Disney bid. The Disney offer was an all-stock bid for the entire company, while in the case of NBC Universal, Comcast is proposing to use only cash to buy a majority stake.
Informal discussions with General Electric about a deal for NBC Universal cropped up over the last several years, before talks began in earnest about six months ago.
Comcast also conducted an internal review that examined which areas the company could expand through a big acquisition, according to an executive briefed on the matter who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations. Executives considered bulking up in cable, through a deal for Time Warner Cable. They considered buying a wireless carrier or an Internet company like Facebook, before deciding that big cable networks, of which NBC Universal has several, including USA and Bravo, fit best with their company.
“In today’s world,” Mr. Roberts said at a recent Internet conference, “people want to get connected to content they love.” As they find more ways to connect, “you could make a case” that content “is going to grow in value, and is going to be a healthy business.” (Mr. Roberts declined to comment for this article.)
Mr. Roberts is described by executives as enamored with deal-making, rather than being focused on budgets and operations.
John C. Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, remembers meeting Mr. Roberts in the 1970s at cable conferences. “Brian, in those days, was anxious to learn,” he said. “My impression of Brian was that he was very adept at complex financial structures.”
Many executives who know Mr. Roberts say he could have been a top-flight investment banker had he not been born into the cable industry.
But having such a start has certainly been an advantage. His father, Ralph J. Roberts, 89, who sold golf clubs and men’s cologne before turning to cable, has gradually turned power over to his son. In 1990, at age 30, Brian became president; in 2002, chief executive, and in 2004, chairman.
Growing up in a family business, much less one in which the father is regarded as a pioneer, can be tough, but Comcast’s experience has been an exception to the usual occurrence in which handing the baton to succeeding generations often leads to the destruction of shareholder value.
Raffi Amit, a management professor at the Wharton School, said Comcast had been “exceptionally good at managing the transition from generation one to generation two. They are a role model for how to manage a father-son transition.”
Leo Hindery, former chief executive of TCI, once the largest cable company in the United States, has known Mr. Roberts for years. “I don’t think anybody has had bigger shoes to fill in the cable or media industry than Brian,” he said. “He has proven in a handful of years that not only can he fill those shoes, but that he is too big.”
At the time of the deal with Mr. Gates, the cable industry was losing subscribers to satellite services, and building broadband technology was a way to retain customers. In addition, Mr. Roberts played a role in rallying support for video-on-demand services about five years ago.
“It took all of Brian’s talents to convince programmers that this was a win-win for them too,” said Kyle McSlarrow, the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
As Comcast has become more prominent in American life — its serves about 24 million homes with cable, Internet and voice service, and appears close to becoming one of the largest producers of television and movies — the company has become conscious of its image. In this vein, Comcast has commissioned a corporate history to be written by William Novak, the ghostwriter for books by Nancy Reagan and Tim Russert.
Mr. Roberts has also been conscious of image. Ten years ago, Newsweek called him “the quiet mogul.” Mr. Roberts, a former all-American Ivy League squash player, has been married to the same woman for 24 years and is known for common touches like traveling on Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York when on business. (On longer trips, Mr. Roberts and other executives fly in private jets.)
But he is also one of corporate America’s highest-paid executives. Last year, he received $23.7 million in compensation, according to a regulatory filing. In the media sector, only the heads of Disney and the News Corporation were paid more. If his latest move succeeds, he will have more in common with them than just a paycheck.