This morning, the top Comcast execs in an earnings conference call admitted to Wall Street that NBCUniversal, which the company just purchased, is a fixer-upper and, in the short term, a money pit. NBCU chief Steve Burke says the company plans to spend $200 million more this year on NBC’s primetime schedule than General Electric did last year when it owned the network. (Burke is looking at 21 pilots, about the same number NBC ordered in 2010.) Comcast considers the turnaround to be a long-term project, but Burke says that simply lifting NBC to third place from fourth would mean “hundreds of millions” in improvement in the company’s cash flow. Meanwhile, Burke also says he plans to spend $100 million more this year on programming NBCU’s cable networks. He expects a “very strong” upfront ad sales season.
As for Universal’s film business, where 1Q revenues and operating cash flow declined, Burke says that “we have to make better films,” although the size of its current slate is “about right.” He attributed some of the woes to the fact that the company had to include a lot of marketing costs for Hop and Fast Five in the latest quarterly report even though most of the revenues from those recently released films will show up on Comcast’s next earnings statement.
Both Burke and Roberts mentioned the “S” word — synergy — which hasn’t been used by Big Media since the days of AOL Time Warner. And we all know how that turned out. The execs said Uni movies will benefit from synergistic cross promotion among Comcast’s various cable and entertainment properties. “We have a saying that we’re better together,” Burke says. “That’ll be a big key to our success.” But Comcast CEO Brian Roberts added that “we still have a lot of work to do, and we know it.”
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts punted when asked the inevitable question about whether he sees Netflix as friend or foe for making deals to offer TV shows on its Internet streaming service. “I defer to them to talk about their company,” Roberts said, adding that “something exciting is happening in that space” and it “presents opportunities” for NBCU.
One thing that surprised me about today’s call: None of the analysts asked what NBC would do if Donald Trump runs for president. Either Wall Street doesn’t think the host of Celebrity Apprentice is serious, or else there’s no “reputation impairment expense” cell they have to fill in on their financial spreadsheets.