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Meet the power players of Comcast who will do battle with Disney and Google in the year ahead

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Meet the power players of Comcast who will do battle with Disney and Google in the year ahead


Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty; Lisa Berg/NBC; Comcast; Hollis Johnson/Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

  • Comcast closed a $39 billion acquisition of Sky in 2018 and announced priorities that all of media and telecom will be watching.
  • We spoke to industry experts and Comcast to identify the executives who are leading the most important initiatives there.
  • From Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch to NBCU CEO Steve Burke, here are the power players of telecom behemoth Comcast.

Comcast was at the center of the megadeals that came to define media and telecom in 2018.

It made a failed bid for 21st Century Fox assets, but came away with British broadcaster Sky. Comcast’s goal: Build a preeminent company that owns the pipes for distribution through Comcast Cable and premium content through Sky and NBCUniversal.

Consolidation has been shaking up the telecom and media universe. Disney acquired the 21st Century Fox assets this summer and is poised to launch a streaming juggernaut that rivals Netflix. AT&T acquired Time Warner, seeking content to compete with Facebook, Apple, Google, and Netflix.

Comcast created the blueprint for a vertically integrated telecom and media company with its 2011 acquisition of NBCU. But in an evolving media landscape, it has to keep up.

The Sky acquisition gives it an international footprint as competitors Disney and Netflix already have; and valuable sports rights, including the majority of Premier League football broadcasting. In Sky, Comcast picked up a satellite company at a time when the satellite industry is bleeding subscribers. AT&T’s DirecTV lost 650,000 subscribers in the fourth quarter alone.

The pay-TV industry is getting squeezed as programming costs for content skyrocket, and consumer continue to cut the cord, switching to lower margin video services, or dropping television packages all together.

Against this backdrop, Comcast will need to integrate its new business quickly and provide a superior product to customers who face a growing number of options for video services. AT&T and Disney’s streaming services will already be out when Comcast launches its product. Through its advertising management platform Freewheel, it has to work with the TV advertising industry to fight Google Ad Manager’s encroachment into ad serving.

Business Insider spoke to management within Comcast, surveyed industry analysts, and analyzed comments at investor presentations to identify the business units and its leaders that are key to carrying out its agenda.

Here are the people who are leading the telco giant forward.

Steve Burke, NBCUniversal CEO


Virginia Sherwood/NBCUniversal

Steve Burke, known as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts’ right-hand man, came to Comcast in 1998 and led the Comcast Cable Business until 2011, when Comcast acquired NBCU from GE.

He ascended to CEO of NBCU, becoming the highest paid executive at Comcast in 2017, with a higher pay package than Roberts himself when he made $46.5 million compared to Roberts’ $32.5 million. The company won’t release 2018 executive compensation figures until April.

“When we bought NBCUniversal eight years ago, the company was making $3.5 billion a year, and this year we made $8.5 billion,” Burke told Business Insider.

It falls to Burke to protect NBCU’s more than $10 billion TV ad business as people ditch traditional TV for online video.

The company isn’t monetizing its online offerings as well as it should be, Burke said on the fourth quarter earnings call.

He announced a free, ad-supported streaming service that will launch in 2020 for Comcast and Sky pay-TV subscribers. Burke said that he’s already talked with bigger MVPDs to offer NBCU’s free streaming option to anyone with a pay-TV subscription, regardless of the service provider.

The service will have just three to five minutes of ads per hour. For non pay-TV subscribers, the monthly cost will be comparable to competitors like Hulu, with a $6 to $8 ad-supported service; and Netflix and Hulu’s ad-free services costing $12 or $13 per month.

For NBCU’s service to succeed, Burke will need to license content from outside creators, even those launching rival streaming services like AT&T’s Warner Media.

“It’s virtually certain that some content providers will join us,” he said.

Dave Watson, Comcast Cable CEO


Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The Walter Kaitz Foundation

As CEO of Comcast Cable, Dave Watson runs the largest cable company in the US.

And while the linear-TV cable market continues to see declines due to cord cutting, Comcast’s share of the broadband market has grown. In the fourth quarter alone, Comcast added 351,000 broadband subscribers, a 5.2% year-over-year increase.

In fact, for the 13th year in a row, Comcast added more than 1 million net additions in 2018, Watson said on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call. He said he sees that growth continuing, noting that there’s room for increased penetration.

Cowen analysts attribute the growth to Comcast’s superior product, with speeds of 1 gigabit per second almost everywhere.

Analysts also give Watson credit for bringing about synergy at Comcast, through Symphony, its company-wide initiative to foster cross collaboration between businesses. Comcast is one of the few companies that owns distribution and content, which it’s spend the past eight years integrating.

“While Comcast Cable and NBCU are different business units, they feed off each other seamlessly,” said CFRA’s Amobi, who also pointed to the continued success of the Olympics, which NBC owns exclusive rights to, as an example of Watson’s work.

When Comcast began exploring a bid for Sky, Watson was one of the executives who traveled with CEO Brian Roberts to meet with Sky and evaluate its business strategy. And Watson’s begun collaborating with Sky, which is exploring how to deploy a mobile app developed at Comcast Cable across Europe.

Dana Strong, president of consumer services


Comcast

Dana Strong has run Comcast’s consumer business since January 2018 and oversees Xfinity, its consumer brand which comprises broadband, video, and voice. That year, cable EBITDA growth was the highest it’s been in seven years, as a result of a focus on the broadband part of Comcast’s business, CEO Roberts said in the company’s earnings statement.

Over the year, analysts wondered how many more subscribers the broadband business could add, Cowen telco analyst Greg Williams told Business Insider. “They knocked the cover off the ball,” he said, noting their more than 1 million additions over the year.

Comcast added 351,000 residential broadband subs in the fourth quarter while Charter added 289,000 and AT&T lost 32,000. Telco analysts at Cowen predict Comcast will add more than 1 million new broadband subscribers in 2019.

Strong also led the continued integrations on X1, its set top box, adding Amazon Prime video to its already robust offerings like Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora.

Matt Strauss, EVP, XFinity


Michael Seto/Business Insider

Cable-TV viewership and subscriber levels have dropped as people increasingly get their entertainment fix with online video services.

Yet Comcast added 351,000 new broadband customers in the fourth quarter, even though it lost 29,000 video customers. (For comparison, AT&T’s lost more than 650,000 pay-TV subscribers in the same period.)

Fourth-quarter cable revenue and EBITDA grew over 5% and over 7%, respectively, analysts at Morgan Stanley wrote in a research note.

Comcast’s Xfinity product, led by Matt Strauss, has been a bright spot for the business.

Xfinity has the best video product of MVPDs in the industry with X1, its set-top box, according to analysts at Cowen. It integrates other OTT like Amazon Prime and Netflix into its platform.

In the year to come, Strauss plans to improve the products offered to customers and the way sales teams deliver those options. That means offering skinnier bundles; slicing up internet, mobile, and video products; and experimenting with pricing.

Fraser Stirling, SVP, devices and advanced AI systems


Comcast

Comcast likes to talk about innovating with “speed, coverage, and control.”

The epitome of this is Xfinity xFi, a mobile app that lets Comcast customers set up wifi networks, troubleshoot network issues, see what devices are connected to their networks, and block or pause connected devices.

XFi is Comcast’s biggest priority this year, SVP Fraser Stirling told Business Insider.

In the first quarter, the company plans to launch Xfinity Assistant, an AI-powered assistant that will allow users of the app to troubleshoot issues and schedule service appointments using voice commands.

XFi is also rolling out news quality and speed tests to educate app users on their devices and speed capacities, with the goal of getting customers more engaged and more likely to retain, Stirling said.

Stirling said Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch and his team are exploring how to deploy xFi across Europe.


Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

Comcast in 2018 paid $39 billion for Sky, a British pay-TV business that serves 23 million customers, mostly direct-broadcast-satellite subscribers, in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland.

That’s on a par with Comcast, the largest US cable-service provider, which serves 22 million video customers and 26 million internet customers.

Under Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch, Sky’s footprint is expected to grow quickly.

“Seventy-eight million households just in the markets we’re in don’t take pay TV. We’re in fundamentally under-penetrated markets,” Darroch said on Comcast’s fourth-quarter earnings call.

Sky has a strong content portfolio, with exclusive rights through 2020 to run HBO shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” in Europe. In 2017, Sky announced a coproduction deal with HBO to create dramas. It also has a 70% stake in the UK production company Love Productions, whose “The Great British Bake Off” is one of the most-watched programs in the UK.

Comcast is already starting to take Sky’s product expertise and import it to the US.

Sky already has an OTT service called Now TV, and its execs are moving to the US to help NBCU build its planned streaming service, Burke said.

Dave Clark, GM, FreeWheel


Comcast

Comcast has to preserve its traditional TV advertising business while adapting to the rise of streaming. That’s where FreeWheel, led by Dave Clark, comes in. Clark was brought in to run FreeWheel by Marcien Jenckes, president of Comcast Cable Advertising.

FreeWheel is an ad tech division that serves ads inside video content, with nearly 1,600 employees including 800 engineers, Clark said. Its Blockgraph platform helps distributors, networks, and marketers run addressable TV ad campaigns at scale.

The online video ad serving market is essentially divided between FreeWheel and Google, which means FreeWheel clients include Comcast competitors like AT&T.

Clark sees FreeWheel as keeping Google from dominating ad serving the way Google and Facebook have in digital advertising.

“We see it very much as a David and Goliath kind of situation,” Clark said. “We feel like we’re holding Google back from the industry.”

Eileen Diskin, SVP, marketing


Comcast

In 2017, Comcast rolled out its first mobile phone service, Xfinity Mobile. Comcast said the marketing push, led by Eileen Diskin, racked up 1.2 million subscribers by the end of 2018.

Analysts said that the subscriber figures are encouraging for a service that’s not even two years old.

For perspective, Charter, Comcast’s closest mobile competitor in mobile, ended the year with 134,000 mobile customers.

The mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, uses Verizon’s network and offers unlimited data plans for $45-a-month for Comcast customers.

The mobile product gives Comcast an additional product to include in a bundle, protecting it against customer churn in other parts of the business.

In the fourth-quarter earnings call, CEO Brian Roberts noted Xfinity Mobile improved overall customer satisfaction and broadband retention when Xfinity Mobile is attached.

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