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Comcast COO Steve Burke Live at D8: We’re Not Breaking Up the Cable Bundle Anytime Soon

Steve Burke

Steve Burke is about to take on a very big job: Combining GE’s (GE) NBC Universal with Comcast’s programming assets to create a television colossus. Good thing he has spent a lifetime in TV preparing for it.

But even without those responsibilities, Burke has plenty on his plate. As COO of the country’s biggest cable company, he helps steer Comcast (CMCSA) through tricky waters: Net neutrality, feisty file-sharers, sleeping tech guys, etc.

In certain circles–perhaps one you’re in sitting right now–the central question Burke and Comcast have to answer is: How are you going to survive the attempts of Google/Apple/everyone on the Web to turn you into an irrelevant dumb-pipe provider?

But the flip side of this question is just as valid: How can anyone really dislodge the company that controls the pipe that makes TV?

Liveblog

Kara starts off with the basics: Why do you want to buy NBC?

Burke: We’ve always believed that content and distribution go better together. We’ve had distribution, we’ve been trying to get content for a while. Tried to get Disney (DIS), came close to buying Universal when Vivendi owned the whole thing.

8:16 am: Kara–but lots of companies have tried marrying content and distribution. That doesn’t always work.

8:16 am: Burke–It has for News Corp. (NWS). But in our case, we already have the ability to put up 70,000 hours of content for video on demand. But we don’t have all the content we’d like. We don’t have day-and-date movies. We’d like all prime-time programming on VOD, etc. The thing that slows that down is the natural negotiations that you have to go through when you don’t own the content.

8:18 am: Kara–You’re also worried about becoming a dumb pipe, without control, right?

8:18 am: Burke: I like to think of it as opportunities. Look at DreamWorks (DWA)–they are worried about declining DVD sales, and they’d like to be able to do electronic sell-through. We’re in a position to help craft that evolution.

8:19 am: Kara–Are you sure consumers really want to watch this stuff on TVs, as opposed to iPads, etc?

8:20 am: Burke–We’re all for choice, anytime, anywhere. We believe consumers want that, too, and “it’s frustratingly slow” to get that to happen. “But I think that’s the world we’re all crashing into,” and “you can’t stop it anyway.”

8:21 am: What’s going with Hulu, which you’re going to own a piece of?

8:21 am: Burke–Whether it’s Hulu or Fancast, which we own all of, “people want their shows on the Internet. And they’re going to get their shows on the Internet.” Not sure if it’s going to be ad-supported or a paid model. “I know–I’ve read”–that Hulu is going to try a paid model.

8:22 am: We also support the TV-everywhere concept (spearheaded by Time Warner–get what you want on the Web, as long as you pay for a cable subscription).

8:23 am: Kara–you’re going to be running NBC, right?

8:23 am: When the deal closes, Jeff Zucker will run the entity. But he’ll report to me.

8:24 am: By the way, content and distribution don’t naturally work together. You have to make them work together. You have to do things that sometimes aren’t immediately advantageous for both sides.

8:24 am: Kara–Let’s talk about your individual businesses, as well as Steve Jobs’s expressed lack of interest in getting into TV. So cable is most important to you, right?

8:25 am: Burke–Cable provides the majority of NBCU’s cash flow. They’re the best part of the media landscape right now. Majority of cash at most entertainment companies comes from cable right now, and even more so at NBCU. But we also think there’s upside with Universal studio and NBC broadcast.

8:26 am: Okay, but give me an honest assessment of broadcast. What did you think of the Conan deal? Did they call you?

8:27 am: Burke–as the deal closes, it’s not our company. We can’t manage anything. To a degree, we’re watching things in the same way you are. There’s clearly a separation that exists. Because of regulators [natch].

8:27 am: Anyway, broadcast TV has been challenged for some time. But right now it looks to be on the upswing. Ads are coming back. retrans consent, where broadcasters will get money from cable operators, is coming. But broadly, if you look at TV, including cable, the overall television business is making as much money as ever.

8:29 am: Kara–do you still need broadcast networks anymore, anyway?

8:29 am: Burke–for big events, you can’t get a bigger audience. And that’s very attractive. We’re not naive. We know the business is “very challenged.” But in the next few years, there can be a real upside. We can invest in the business. If you’re in the network TV business, you have to spend the money to be competitive: on pilots, on encouraging creative people to work, etc. Note that NBC spent a lot more on pilots for this fall than they did a year ago. “If you’re in it, you have to be in it to invest and win. You can’t cut your way to success in broadcast TV.” [Which was Zucker’s strategy last year. So what does that mean?]

8:31 am: Burke moves on to the Universal movie studio. It can move the existing library to different platforms, help it migrate from DVD to electronic sell-through, etc.

8:32 am: Will Burke have to do a lot of cost-cutting? When we bought AT&T (T), we did. But in this case, it’s not about costs. There’s very little overlap. It’s more of a case of trying to put everything together.

8:33 am: Kara: So will you sell anything off after the deal goes through?

Burke: No. We want the cable systems, but the other stuff has value, too. And all of the parts can work together.

8:34 am: Kara–How do you look at competitors like Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG). What do you think of Google TV?

8:34 am: Our real competitors are the satellite companies and telcos. Right now. The real challenge is delivering all that data. You need infrastructure–pipe–for that. That’s how you deliver tonnage. And it’s going to be that way for a long time. The Web can deliver video, but not the same tonnage, in the same way. There are a lot of companies that want to get to the TV set. And I think all of them can be complementary. But people who subscribe to us want ESPN, CNBC, etc.

8:36 am: Kara–But why do need bundles and tiers, anyway?

8:36 am: Burke: The programmers we work with want full distribution. And you pay $50, $60, and you get 200 channels. And the ecosystem works very well for the programmers, and it works well for us.

8:36 am: Kara–and for customers?

8:37 am: Burke–TV in the U.S. is better than anywhere in the world. It’s natural to say you only want to pay for two channels. And we could technically do that, and we could offer a less expensive bundle. But I think the business model has evolved to be what it is right now, and it’s been successful for both sides of the equation.

Steve Burke of Comcast.

8:37 am: But again, people are picking and choosing what they want on the Web. And some of them seem to be turning off cable as well. Aren’t you worried about that?

8:38 am: Burke: We worry all the time. But the fact of the matter is, it’s counterintuitive. I have five kids. And they all consume media different ways. But quarter after quarter, year after year, cable subs go up. It has never gone down. There’s no evidence that people are giving up their cable. If people want ESPN or CNBC, they’re going to subscribe. In the future, you’ll have more stuff on more devices. But at the end of the day, it’s in the programmers’ interest to get affiliate fees for their stuff.

8:40 am: Kara–But don’t you think people want a la carte?

8:40 am: Burke–I’d like to buy the first section of the Wall Street Journal, and not the rest of the paper [followed by Kara fumbling with some math].

8:40 am: In any case, you’ve got much more choice now than you had 10 years ago. It’ll be the same thing in the next 10 years.

8:41 am: Kara–which devices are important to you beyond TV?

8:41 am: Burke–The iPad, of course. We just showed off that new iPad app/TV controller that will replace the crummy search and navigation that exists on the set-top box now.

8:43 am: Kara–Is 3-D coming to the home?

8:43 am: Burke–Yep. This won’t be like HD sets, where they started off very expensive and came down relatively slowly. We’ll get a point pretty quickly where if you’re buying a nice TV set, it will have 3-D. Now there are a lot of places where 3-D doesn’t enhance the experience. And they need to figure it out. For instance, you don’t 3-D when you have overhead shots at at a football game. So we need to figure out what percent of stuff you watch will have 3-D. But it’s coming.

8:44 am: Kara–Jobs talked about collapsing windows, but windows don’t really seem to ever collapse.

8:45 am: Burke–Right. They are narrowing, but only slightly. You want to have windows, but make sure they have a purpose. For instance, I think the best place to have a movie for the general public is the movie theater. I think that’s going to be the same for a long time.

8:46 am: Kara–But what if you don’t want to go the theater?

8:46 am: Burke–I don’t know. I think there’s a real benefit to having it in theaters opening weekend. But 90 days out, I’m not sure. It probably doesn’t have to be windowed for 90 days; you should be able to get it on VOD, etc.

8:47 am: Kara–One more time: What’s the most important device, either real or overhyped?

8:47 am: Burke–The iPad. I bring it everywhere I go. It’s so elegant. And so early in its life cycle. But I’m looking forward to other tablets, too. The big picture is that all this stuff will enhance the value of great content. That’s the bet we made with NBC, that it can get to more people, over more devices, and get more valuable that way. People are always worried about technology draining value from media, but each new wave of technology has been additive.

Q&A:

Q: Do you think your pipe business will become separate from rest of your business and become commoditized?

Burke: For starters, we’re already separating programming from video (which includes TV, high-speed, etc.

Q: What about the theory that big mergers, like the ones you’re doing, are products of hubris more than business savvy?

Steve Burke of Comcast.

Burke: I know that theory. We’ve done a lot of deals. “Every single time we’ve done a deal, Wall Street has said, ‘Why are you doing that?'” But we have a view that content and distribution work together if properly managed. And that a company that gets bigger can do cool things with technology, if you do it right. “But we’re totally aware that there are a lot of people saying–‘Why don’t you stay where you are?’ We think we’re getting a fairly priced deal for NBCU.”

Q: Do you think there will be a market for set-top boxes that consumers buy on their own, with features they want?

Burke: Complicated question. Each MSO is a conglomeration of different technologies. We’d love it if people bought their own set-top boxes. We’d save a ton of money. But the different technologies involved make that difficult.

Q: What’s your mobile strategy?

Burke: We’ve invested in Clearwire. We’re rolling out WiMax. We’re big believers in Wi-Fi. The iPad makes you want Wi-Fi meshing in cities, and we’re working on that. But the traditional cellphone business, as a fourth product to complement TV, landline and Web, doesn’t make sense for us.

Q: You guys have been good about chasing after malware, botnets, etc. What can you do to get others to emulate you?

Steve Burke of Comcast.

Burke: The Internet business is crucial for us. It’s a growth driver. So we have to provide really reliable, really fast Internet service. And we believe in open internet. But you have to deal with congestion and protect copyrights and prevent malware and spam, and we invest a lot in that. It’s a very tricky balancing act, to make sure that the highway is really fast, but also controlled.

Q: I run Hillcrest, and Hulu blocked my service. Will you do something different when you own NBC?

Burke: “It’s not time for me to answer that question.”

Kara: “Really?”

Burke: “Really.”

Q: Your customers hate you. What are doing about that?

Burke: We’re working on customer service, spending a lot of money on it. If you don’t take care of your customers, they’re going to go somewhere else. The physical networks are getting more sophisticated. But we want to improve them.

Q: Apologies, missed the question here.

Burke is explaining that TV software platform is “balkanized” compared with the Web, where it’s much easier to get stuff to work together.

Steve Burke of Comcast.

A note about our coverage: This liveblog is not an official transcript of the conversation that occurred onstage. Rather, it is a compilation of quotes, paraphrased statements and ad-lib observations written and posted to the Web as quickly as possible. It is not intended as a transcript and should not be interpreted as one.