Comcast Boss Brian Roberts Says NBCU Streaming Plan Won’t Mean “Cold Turkey” Exit From Third-Party Licensing Deals

Brian Roberts renews contract with Comcast through June 2015

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said the forthcoming launch of NBCUniversal’s ad-supported streaming service will not prompt the kind of pullback from third-party licensing that has been signaled by Disney and, to a lesser extent, WarnerMedia.

The executive made the comments during an appearance at Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco.

Asked by Morgan Stanley media analyst Benjamin Swinburne whether investors could expect a near-term hit to the Comcast balance sheet due to the company owning more content and leaning away from licensing, he said, “Not in any dramatic way.”

While that outlook could change, Roberts cautioned, he went on to explain that the streaming strategy would blend third-party licensing with holding back content. (That view aligns with that of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who recently said WarnerMedia’s approach would be to make “case by case” decisions and pursue a “two-sided model.”)

When NBCU announced its streaming plans last month, the entertainment group’s CEO, Steve Burke, said shows like NBCU’s The Office, which performs very well for Netflix, could be retained by the company instead of extended for third-party streaming. Such decisions come with high price tags. WarnerMedia recently re-upped with Netflix for Friends, reaping $100 million in a one-year, non-exclusive payday but also raising questions about its strategy.

“Our thinking going in is, we have an awful lot of content,” Roberts said. “Some of it will monetize best being on an advertising platform, others will monetize best being on a third-party platform. We’re very much focused on not just, as others have said, going completely cold turkey and taking it off all these other platforms. I don’t think that’s our mindset at the moment. We like those relationships.”

Media companies for years have reaped billions from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu as the streaming giants have filled their pipelines. As those services start to move toward originals and traditional media players develop their own streaming services, the expectation on Wall Street has been that the gusher of licensing revenue will likely slow markedly. Disney warned on its recent quarterly earnings call that operating income will be $150 million lower due to titles being pulled back from third-parties such as Netflix.

Swinburne asked Roberts if the NBCU offering was still on track to launch in early 2020. “We’ll refine it as it goes,” he replied. Disney and WarnerMedia both plan to launch their subscription services by the end of 2019.

As to the origin of the service, Roberts said, “We looked at how to play to our strengths, and why now, and whether this technology is ready to go. We have not achieved all of our ambitions in terms of targeted, direct advertising to consumers. … These streaming platforms have that capability.”

After acquiring European pay-TV giant Sky, Comcast reached more than 50 million subscriber relationships and wanted to play to that strength. “We’re excited by it,” he said. “The whole organization is galvanized.”

Roberts added, “The point is to not be like Netflix or others that are out there. They’ve done a great job doing what they’re doing. What can we do that consumers will like, that is different and that creates value for our shareholders?”

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