Friday, March 14, 2008

Deal or No Deal

Ever since Brian L. Roberts abandoned a hostile bid for Walt Disney four years ago, Wall Street has wondered when the Comcast chief executive and serial acquirer might make a play for another big media prize. The chatter picked up last fall, just before America's largest cable company confessed that it would add fewer subscribers than expected in the fourth quarter. Some investors worried that, with growth slowing, Roberts might try to pick off Yahoo! or NBC Universal—diversifying away from cable by wading into the murky waters of "content."

In January, dissident shareholder Glenn H. Greenberg warned Roberts to stick to what he knows best: distributing TV, Internet, and phone service over Comcast's 125,000 miles of pipe. As far as Greenberg was concerned, buying a Web site, cable network, wireless outfit, or other "noncore" business would "fritter away" the more than $2 billion in cash that Comcast generates annually. Greenberg, the boss of Chieftain Capital Management, a $5 billion investment fund that owns 2% of Comcast's stock, brazenly questioned whether Roberts should be running the company. The broadside jolted the normally unflappable Roberts into action. In a mid-February conference call with investors, he vowed to reinstate Comcast's dividend after a nine-year hiatus and repurchase $7 billion in stock by 2009, two moves designed to put more of Comcast's money into shareholders' hands. His 88-year-old father and Comcast founder, Ralph, even gave up his hefty compensation package. And Roberts promised that Comcast "was not spending any time on any of the large, transformative acquisitions" that Wall Street had been buzzing about.

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