What’s Brian Roberts Gonna Buy Now?

Brian Roberts at Sun Valley in 2019
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
January 21, 2022

Back in early December, when I first wrote about the possibility that Bobby Kotick might sell Activision, a few media executives responded by putting a bug in my ear: Would Comcast chief Brian Roberts make a bid for Kotick’s gaming empire? NBCUniversal, after all, was badly in need of scale, more attractive intellectual property, and a more aggressive long-term strategy. And Activision, which was trading at a massive discount, would have offered it immediate entry into the lucrative world of gaming and a massive infusion of new I.P. Meanwhile, Roberts had twice missed out on major acquisitions that would have supercharged his media business: he failed to intercept Bob Iger‘s play for Fox in 2019 (though he succeeded in driving up the price, and pissing off Iger in the process), and he was seemingly caught off guard when John Stankey and David Zaslav negotiated their WarnerMedia-Discovery tie-up last year. To add insult to injury, the big deal he had landed—a $39 billion takeover of the British broadcaster Sky—appeared to have been a mistake, as the fast-declining asset is now worth a fraction of what it was when Comcast bought it.

But Roberts never spoke to Kotick about an acquisition, sources close to both men told me this week. And in retrospect, I suppose that makes sense. For a $2.3 trillion tech giant with a sophisticated gaming business, like Microsoft, an $80 billion acquisition of Activision is a smart play. (Microsoft is doing the deal in cash.) For a $230 billion telecom firm with a legacy media portfolio, like Comcast, that’s far more risky. Nevertheless, when news hit that Satya Nadella and Phil Spencer had realized their long-held dream of acquiring Activision—more on the behind-the-scenes negotiations here—I couldn’t help but wonder… What the hell is Brian Roberts going to do now?

Roberts has said that NBCUniversal doesn’t need mergers and acquisitions to achieve scale, but I’m not sure I believe him. Streaming is the future of the business, and NBCU’s Peacock is languishing behind its competitors. So much so, in fact, that NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell refused to report Peacock subscriber growth during the last quarterly earnings report—an omission of a fundamental metric that was all the more notable given that it came on the heels of the Summer Olympics, an NBC-exclusive event that Shell and his colleagues had hoped would provide a much-needed boost to subscriptions. Peacock chairman Matt Strauss has argued that NBC’s service, which is ad-supported, unlike Netflix and Disney+, should be judged as a complementary service to those streamers, rather than a competitor. But that argument only makes sense if people are actually using Peacock as a complementary service, and the most recent reported numbers—54 million sign-ups and 20 million active monthly accounts, as of July—don’t bear that out. If NBCUniversal is serious about even complementing Netflix, Disney, and the soon-to-be Warner Bros. Discovery, it is going to need a significant infusion of new I.P.