| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) CEO Brian Roberts brokered the 2001 deal that turned the cable company his father founded into a national player, but he is perhaps better known for his failed attempt to buy Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) in 2004.
Roberts hopes to close the Disney chapter on Thursday after unveiling the biggest media M&A deal of the year: a $37 billion joint venture combining General Electric Co's (GE.N) NBC Universal and Comcast's own cable networks.
The deal will make Roberts one of the most powerful men in media, overseeing 24 million subscribers of video, Internet and voice services, plus the NBC broadcast television network, cable networks like USA and SyFy, theme parks and a film studio.
The mild-mannered Roberts, 50, was born to be a cable guy -- even more so than his father, Ralph, who founded the company in 1963. The fourth of five siblings and the only one to show a serious interest in the business, Roberts had demanded to get involved with his father's company from his early teens.
He has accumulated nearly 35 years of experience in everything from climbing up poles to connect homes to hammering out deals with legends such as cable pioneer John Malone and Microsoft's Bill Gates.
To many though, it is the 2001 deal that Roberts secured with AT&T Broadband to make Comcast a truly national player, and his subsequent unsuccessful bid for Disney, that shapes their image of Roberts, who became Comcast CEO in 2002.
"Any time a son takes over a company, Wall Street is always skeptical, but the biggest, single turning point was the AT&T Broadband deal," said Tuna Amobi, an analyst at Standard & Poor's. "He did a very good job of integrating a very large company after becoming CEO."
Roberts' reputation as a dealmaker has worried some investors who would prefer that Comcast focus on its roots as a delivery pipe for video, Internet and voice services. Such investors see the NBC transaction as "empire-building."
Comcast shares fell as much as 15 percent after news of a possible deal first leaked in September, though they rebounded on Thursday after the company raised its dividend 40 percent.
Long-term shareholders at some funds like Gabelli & Co, are supportive of Roberts' vision.
"Brian's always been a big-picture thinker with a long-term horizon and he's hedging his bets between content and distribution," said Chris Marangi, portfolio manager at Gabelli.
But others question that vision. Time Warner Inc (TWX.N) spun off Time Warner Cable Inc TWC.N this year, saying there were few to no benefits to shareholders in keeping content and distribution under one roof.
"There were really no operating synergies," Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt told the Reuters Global Media Summit. "What the people do at Warner Bros every day is very different from what I do at cable."
Liberty Media LINTA.O head John Malone made his fortune building content and distribution businesses over 30 years, yet he was less certain about the wisdom of that strategy today.
"From Brian's point of view, he tried to buy Disney a few years ago so this is not a new thing for Comcast," Malone said in an interview last month. "What's curious is that the same year Time Warner decides being vertical doesn't make any sense, Brian decides that it does."
Several media executives at the Reuters Summit said Roberts would likely be the most influential person in the business next year if the NBC transaction is approved by regulators.
In 1995, Roberts had worked on a deal with Malone that thwarted media mogul Barry Diller's attempt to take control of shopping channel QVC. But Diller could not speak highly enough of Roberts.
"Brian Roberts is the real deal," said Diller, CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp IACI.O. "As an executive, he is both young enough and smart enough and ambitious enough and interesting enough that he can play a profound role in how this (media) is going to change and evolve."
Roberts, who cuts the appearance of a college professor more so than a flashy media executive, is the right person at the right time to do this deal, Diller said.
If there is one area that Roberts' leadership has struggled with perception, it is in corporate governance. Comcast is regularly criticized by shareholder groups like RiskMetrics and others for overpaying its CEO -- especially when measured against share performance.
Corporate Library in September named Roberts as the third "highest paid worst performer" in Corporate America with a compensation package of $44 million, based on a survey of 2,000 companies.
Corporate governance watchers also frown on the fact that the Roberts family owns around 4 percent of the economic interest in Comcast, but Brian Roberts has one-third of the voting rights, giving him control of the business.
Perhaps in a testament to the fact that Roberts is sensitive to such criticism, in February he decided to forgo a pay rise in 2009 and significantly cut back on personal benefits including a controversial "golden coffin" package that would have paid nearly $300 million to his heirs in the event of his death.
(Reporting by Yinka Adegoke; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Maureen Bavdek)