All eyes on Comcast's Roberts in 2010

NEW YORK Fri Dec 4, 2009 5:18pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If Brian Roberts wants an audience, he's got one.

The Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) chief executive made headlines this week with his NBC Universal deal, expanding the reach of his cable company into nearly every corner of the media business, from making movies to running theme parks.

That sort of influence makes him the executive who everyone in the industry should keep tabs on next year, a number of other top media brass said this week.

"You look at Comcast, you have to say that Brian is going to have a big impact on what's going to happen over the next year," Mark Greenberg, CEO of the new pay TV network Epix said this week at the Reuters Global Media Summit.

"Although NBC certainly has fallen on a tougher time, it's a great time to buy something. You have nowhere to go but up."

Once the deal closes, Roberts will oversee the NBC broadcast television network, cable networks like USA and SyFy, theme parks and a film studio, in addition to Comcast's 24 million subscribers of video, Internet and voice services.

Such reach sets him apart in a business where mobile phones, video games, scores of cable channels and countless websites have made big audiences hard to find.

Big media companies have been shrinking to cut costs, or breaking up to concentrate on either making entertainment or distributing it.

Even executives who disagree with Roberts' strategy say he is the one to watch next year.

"Clearly, if the Comcast/NBC deal actually occurs, it will be Brian because that seems to be the biggest thing on the horizon at the moment," said Time Warner Cable (TWC.N) CEO Glenn Britt, when asked who will have the most influence on the media industry in 2010.

Still, given the fragmentation of the media business, it should come as no surprise that Roberts was not the only name to crop up. It was just the only name to crop up more than once.

Walt Disney Co's (DIS.N) Anne Sweeney named her own boss, CEO Bob Iger, in an answer that may best be considered both perceptive and diplomatic.

"Certainly the moves that he's made over this past year, when you look at being mired in the recession and the moves that Disney has made and the way the company's been managed, it certainly makes him someone to keep an eye on," said Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks.

Discovery Communications Inc (DISCA.O) CEO David Zaslav went a step further, naming the company's two biggest shareholders as likely holding the most influence in the media business in 2010: John Malone and the Newhouse family.

Some speakers preferred a less personal approach, picking new media as the one to watch for the media business in 2010.

"I think social media is going to be relevant in the media space going forward," said Nikesh Arora, president of global sales operations and business development for Google Inc

(GOOG.O).

"So I think one of the things to watch out for is probably what happens in social media, as far as Facebook or Twitter, various evolutions of that part of the industry."

Others took an even broader approach, saying that media's direction in 2010 would largely be determined by the economy.

"Tim Geithner," said George Bodenheimer, president of Disney's ESPN and ABC Sports. "The media business is a barometer for the U.S. economy. Certainly on ad sales side, on what people have to spend."

Still, Barry Diller, no stranger to influencing media in the past 45 years, was among those who picked Roberts, saying his move on NBC Universal opens a new chapter.

"Brian Roberts is the real deal as an executive," said Diller, who runs IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI.O). "This is a real shift. This is not expansionism a la conglomerates of the past in media. This is a very disciplined, very smart group with huge resource in their cable, telephony, data businesses, that is doing this with an absolute sense of strategy."

(Reporting by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

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