More Brian Roberts & Chris Licht Buzz

Brian Roberts
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 3, 2022

Happy Friday. After a rollicking few weeks in media, I chatted with our co-founder and editor-in-chief Jon Kelly to discuss it all: Who will take over 9 p.m. on CNN and MSNBC; why Brian Roberts is focused on gaming; whether Netflix has become an acquisition target; Shari Redstone’s next moves; Chris Licht’s master plan, and more.

Jon Kelly: You’ve unearthed some great reporting lately about Comcast’s interest in EA Sports, and its desire to spin it off with NBCU. In one configuration of the deal, which inevitably fell apart, EA C.E.O. Andrew Wilson would have run the combined entity and Jeff Shell would have ascended to a role at Comcast. Do you think Brian Roberts blinked at the idea of entrusting so much authority to an outsider?

Dylan Byers: Absolutely. Control is extremely important to Roberts. He and his family actually own just 1 percent of Comcast, but they control the company by holding one-third of the voting power through Class B shares. Needless to say, Roberts’ definition of control likewise extends to having the power to appoint his deputies across the organization, including NBCUniversal. Jeff Shell is a Roberts loyalist, after all, and the two men get along well.

Under the terms of the proposed NBCU-EA deal, the Roberts family would have maintained control of the newly combined entity, but leadership would have passed to Andrew Wilson. Surely, Roberts had reason to believe that Wilson would be a capable leader. He’s been C.E.O. of Electronic Arts for nearly a decade. And, as I’ve reported, Bob Iger even talked to Wilson back in late 2017, early 2018, about taking the helm at ESPN.

All that said, a major media company, like NBCU-EA, and a sports network, like ESPN, are two very different beasts. Last week, I was told that part of the reason the deal fell apart was because Wilson failed to impress everyone at Comcast and NBCUniversal. There were other, arguably more important factors, of course—most notably, disagreements over price—but I would not be at all surprised if Roberts wasn’t 100 percent convinced that he wanted to put an outsider at the helm of his media giant. 

In a post-correction equities market, Comcast now looks like a real whale with its $200 billion market capitalization, which is about the same as Disney, and twice the size of Netflix. Why the eagerness to keep scaling up?

The Disney and Comcast market caps get lumped together a lot because they’re roughly equal, but let’s remember that one of these companies is an entertainment kingdom and the other is a telecom giant that contains a media division. If you single out NBCUniversal and compare it to Disney, there’s quite a bit of daylight between the two. Moreover, Disney has a vast array of highly monetizable I.P., including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Pixar, Mickey Mouse and so on, as well as a very robust streaming service. NBCUniversal has a handful of less lucrative franchises, like Jurassic Park and the Minions movies, as well as a considerably less popular streaming service that even its own executives describe as supplemental. NBCUniversal does have a great sports business, like Disney’s ESPN, but sports aren’t something you own, they’re something you rent.

So, if you’re Brian Roberts, you’re trying to make up for that deficit—to say nothing of the deficit that exists between NBCUniversal and the likes of Apple, Amazon, and Google. Meanwhile, you’re watching available assets like Fox, WarnerMedia, and Activision get snatched off the shelf by your rivals. And on top of that, you’re also trying to position yourself for the future. Gaming is a rapid-growth business, and one that is conveniently divorced from the low-to-no growth business of linear. Hence the interest in Electronic Arts, and in potentially spinning off NBCUniversal altogether.

In a recent Times article, C.E.O. Bob Bakish outlined the bull case for Paramount Global as an independent company. You talk to everyone at the highest echelons of media. Is the presumption that he’s posturing and that he and Shari Redstone are waiting for a market rebound to fetch the best price for the company?

Take this to the bank: Paramount Global will not be an independent company in five years. It’s worth $22 billion—down from nearly $30 billion when Shari Redstone decided to re-merge Viacom and CBS—and it doesn’t have the scale to compete with its so-called rivals. This is a particularly opportune time for Bakish to talk the company up: Top Gun: Maverick is opening to massive numbers; Paramount+ is adding subscribers while Netflix is flatlining; and the market is in turmoil. And yes, Paramount may continue to be acquisitive. But in the long run it is positioning itself for a sale or a merger. There are sharks and minnows, and minnows don’t get to swim forever.

Alright, let’s turn to cable news. I’ve been surprised by how patiently executives at CNN and MSNBC have waited to fill their 9 p.m. slots. In fact, I almost wonder if waiting too long will potentially devalue the real estate. What are you hearing about the internal horse races at the networks, and does the deliberation process suggest that there just isn’t another Maddow-sized star out there?

Well, yes, talent is extremely hard to come by. It’s hard enough to find passable on-air talent that can read from a teleprompter, let alone charismatic cultural icons who can reshape the fortunes of an entire news network. This is why you give Joe & Mika five hours of real estate and stretch Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon across two hours of primetime; why Brian Williams’ name keeps coming up as CNN’s next primetime host, even though that’s a position he has said he doesn’t want; and why MSNBC neglected to fill in Rachel Maddow’s time slot even though they had nine months to prepare for her pseudo-departure from primetime.

What I don’t understand about the 9 p.m. dilly-dallying is why neither side is seizing the chance to stake a claim on the hour. Let’s agree that the two sides are fighting over a similar audience—that is, cable news consumers who refuse to watch Fox News. Never mind that MSNBC is avowedly liberal and CNN is tacking toward a more nonpartisan posture. Audiences gravitate toward personalities, and 9 p.m. has historically been where you put the face of your network. So there’s an opportunity here for either network to snap the ball while the opposition is still in the huddle. But they refuse to do it—and the reason, again, is probably because there are no ideal solutions. 

You caused quite a stir last with your recent piece, First Lichts, which laid out how many Zucker loyalists remain inside CNN. But the most powerful detail, in my opinion, was that Chris Licht is actively analyzing the network and his talent, which suggests that there will be future changes and repositioning. What is Licht looking for?

The most interesting—and challenging—part of reporting that piece was trying to convey that there are two very different factions inside CNN: On one side, there are the Zuckerites who are desperate for aggressive, hands-on leadership, and thus critical of Licht’s “lead from behind” strategy. On the other side, there are producers and talent—fans of Zucker and otherwise—who believe their work already aligns with Licht’s more centrist, “journalism first” vision for CNN, and thus don’t seem to be watching their shadows so closely. 

Coming away from this piece, I couldn’t help but feel that Licht will have little patience for his critics, or for anyone who can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get the work done on their own. In his view, his role is to define the broad goals of the network and then get journalists the resources they need to do the job—not to explain the job every day or do it for them. So my sense is that he’s looking for enterprising and editorially confident journalists who aren’t constantly in need of his help or his approval. And yes, if that doesn’t sound like you, you should be watching your back.