These are heady times for Brian Roberts, chairman of Comcast, the cable TV giant. Last month he was lionized by James B. Stewart on the first business page of the New York Times. Then this month Philadelphia Magazine proclaimed him “The Most Powerful Man in Philadelphia.” Unfortunately, the juiciest parts of Roberts’s no-holds-barred interview with the magazine’s editor, Tom McGrath, never got into print. But I’ve obtained a tape of the full conversation, which I’m posting here as a public service. (McGrath’s questions appear in italics.)
With the focus on innovation and technology, your new building seems to be a statement about where Comcast is headed as well as a major commitment to Philadelphia. Does it feel that way to you? It does now. But the original motivation was — we had all this money coming in from millions of cable customers paying us $100 a month, and we didn’t know what to do with it. We could have passed the excess back to our customers, but we knew they’d just spend it on liquor, tobacco, drugs, and guns when they should be watching TV. So we decided to put up a great big building instead. The thought that it might be a good thing for Philadelphia never occurred to us. But now that you mention it — yeah, I guess you’re right.
In effect, this new building announces that Comcast is no longer a regional player, and neither is Philadelphia. Are you as excited about that as I am? Yes. In fact, I’m even more excited about it than you are.
No, I’m more excited about it than you are. How do you know how excited I am? What are you, a psychiatrist?
You’re no psychiatrist either. So how do you know how excited I am? This conversation grows tiresome. Guards! Seize him! To the dungeon with this babbling fool!
No, wait! Give me another chance! I promise to lay off the hard-hitting questions. I was just kidding. But it’s your own fault, you know. When you call me “The Most Powerful Man in Philadelphia,” you shouldn’t be surprised if it goes to my head.
Surely you’re aware that public opinion about Comcast is sharply divided. Some people think Comcast is wonderful. Others think it’s terrific. You mean some people don’t think we’re terrific? Where are they? Guards!
Sorry. Ten years ago, Comcast was mostly a cable company. After the NBC Universal acquisition, you became a cable and content company. How do you see yourselves going forward? We’ve thought about that a lot, and with the help of our PR consultants, we have a real definition. We’re a company that buys other existing companies, preferably monopolies or operations that already dominate their markets. We don’t create anything from scratch, and we avoid underdog situations like the plague. Guess that about sums it up.
But don’t you see yourself as uniquely positioned at the crossroads of media and technology in a rapidly changing world? Isn’t your arrival at this crossroads a turning point not only for Comcast and Philadelphia, but also for the national economy and indeed for Western civilization as we know it? Hey, you’re good. Why am I wasting money on expensive PR counsel when I could hire you?
How power works
Now that you mention it, I am getting a little tired of working for Herb Lipson. Talking about Herb and power — as you know, we at Philadelphia Magazine worship power in all its aspects. But it’s so hard to pin down. How exactly do you manifest your power? A lot of it is a matter of perception. In front of a mirror, I’m just an ordinary fallible human like you. But by deploying large armies of preening lobbyists dressed in expensive suits and armed with generous expense accounts, we’ve persuaded Wall Street money managers that we really know what we’re doing. As a result, we’ve attracted vast pools of investment capital, which enable me to attract still greater legions of lobbyists, sycophants, and journalists eager to jump on our bandwagon. The process just kind of feeds on itself. All of which greatly leverages the potential of a guy like me, as opposed to, say, a guy like you.
And the bottom line is? Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.
No you can’t. Yes I can.
No you can’t. Yes I can.
No you can’t. Yes I can, yes I can!
Can you bake a pie? No.
Neither can I. You’ve surely seen the recent Inquirer exposé that said Comcast devotes 95 percent of its budget to lobbying and only 5 percent to customer service. Is there anything to that story? I’m glad you asked that question, so I can set the record straight once and for all. That story was one of the worst examples of irresponsible reporting I’ve ever seen. It was an absolute disgrace to the journalism profession.
So there’s no truth to the story? None whatsoever. Only about 88 percent of our budget goes to lobbying — 89 percent, tops.
If you’ll indulge me on a personal matter: Last week my home cable and Internet connections both went down. When I called Comcast to report the problem, I was put on hold for an hour. Three days later the company sent a sociopath to my house who spoke no English, tracked mud into my living room, and parked his van in the middle of the street so no cars could pass. When I asked him to move his van, he shouted something that I later learned was Slovenian for “Fuck your mother’s boyfriend.” Can you do something for me? Yes, we get a lot of complaints like that, and I’d like to help. But as CEO, my job is to focus on the big picture. I can’t see the forest if I’m preoccupied with the trees. That’s why we’re building our new office tower.
To keep you far above your customers down on the sidewalk? That’s one reason, yes. But also, we need to expand our dungeon capacity. That’s our only deterrent for all those customers whose personal problems keep distracting me from our long-range corporate vision.
Isn’t there someone at Comcast who can resolve my problem? I’m sure there is. I just can’t concern myself with it. That’s the nature of a CEO’s job. Believe me, it’s lonely at the top.
That’s hard to believe. We’ve heard say you just play night and day. Oh, go ’way!
You drink champagne from a slipper; we drink water from a dipper. Though it seems cruel to bust all your dreams, still I must.
You’ve been generous with your time and candid with your answers. Do you have time for one last question? Fire away. But I’ve done enough of these interviews to know that the last question is always the toughest.
Will you marry me? I want to live with you and bear your children. I’m already married, with children of my own. And men can’t have babies. It’s not biologically possible.
Oh. Well then, could I marry one of your lobbyists? Really, I’ll do anything to bask in the glow of your power and charisma. Your life is so exciting, and mine is so tedious. Please — you’ve got to save me. Guards!