* Comcast CEO declines comment on “specific” deal talk
* Roberts says it’s “prudent” to look at content deals
* To launch On Demand online by year-end for HBO subs
(Adds full quote, background, bylines)
By Poornima Gupta and Ian Sherr
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O), the largest U.S. cable operator, will look at all opportunities in the content business, Chief Executive Brian Roberts said on Tuesday, but he declined to comment on any specific situations.
Comcast has been widely reported to be in deal talks with General Electric Co (GE.N) to buy a majority stake in NBC Universal. The deal under consideration would combine Comcast’s cable network assets and $4 billion to $6 billion of cash with NBC Universal to create a new and larger content company including TV broadcast, cable networks, movie and theme park assets.
Comcast would have a 51 percent stake and GE would own the rest of a company valued around $30 billion, according to people close to the deal.
Speaking at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Roberts was positive about his company’s interest in acquiring content even as he declined to comment specifically when asked about talks with GE about NBC.
“If there’s an opportunity, whether it’s the one you are talking about or other, our philosophy is it’s prudent to think about it, look at it and beyond that we have to just wait and see,” said Roberts.
GE CEO Jeff Immelt was due to speak at the same event a couple of hours after Roberts. It was not immediately clear if the executives would meet to discuss the deal at the event.
Talks between the companies have been handled by advisors from both sides including investment bankers. Comcast is also being advised by former News Corp president Peter Chernin, according to people familiar with the talks. [ID:nN19384934]
Even though GE owns 80 percent of NBC Universal, any deal between Comcast and GE will depend on NBC Universal’s current 20 percent owner Vivendi SA (VIV.PA) agreeing to sell its stake to GE at an agreed price. Vivendi’s annual option to sell its stake comes up in a few weeks.
In 2004, Comcast CEO Roberts launched a hostile and audacious $54 billion bid to buy Walt Disney (DIS.N), but ultimately failed. Since then, investors have feared that the cable company would make a similarly large and possibly value-depletive deal.
Some industry watchers believe that Comcast’s reported interest in NBC has been partly driven by a desire to have some say in Hulu, the popular TV show website jointly owned by NBC, News Corp (NWSA.O) and Walt Disney.
Cable companies are reportedly concerned that users might start cutting their subscriptions if they can see their favorite shows online for free.
Comcast has led an initiative called On Demand Online/TV Everywhere which allows paying cable subscribers to watch their shows on demand over the Web when they want.
The move is an attempt to preserve the long-standing profitable cable TV business which generates revenue from cable subscription fees and advertising.
Comcast is currently testing On Demand Online in 5,000 homes. Roberts gave a demo of the service, saying delivering video over the Internet is a “friend not foe.”
He said Comcast will launch a full Web-based on-demand service to Comcast customers who subscribe to HBO before the end of the year.
Reporting by Poornima Gupta and Ian Sherr; Writing by Yinka Adegoke; Editing by Richard Chang, Andre Grenon, Phil Berlowitz