Comcast's Roberts: The business is changing, and so are we

June 21, 2011: 4:45 PM ET

The cable company CEO previewed a next-gen user interface, but can Comcast really compete with Apple, not to mention Netflix?

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts

FORTUNE -- Comcast (CMCSA) CEO Brian Roberts wants you to know the company is adapting to the times, and that the perception of the cable company as a stodgy provider of bulky cable set top boxes is a thing of the past.

"We recognize that the business is changing and has changed, and we're well aware that there's new competition," Roberts told Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer on Thursday in New York.

One of the biggest topics of discussion was subsidiary NBC Universal's successful $4.4 billion bid for U.S. TV rights to the next four Olympic games. Several analysts had weighed in immediately after the news last week stating that the deal may not end up being profitable, something which Roberts disputes, even if the business model behind it still has to be ironed out. The key was to "go long."

"We had to find a way that they could be satisfied with what they were getting and we could absolutely feel that we could make money into the future," he said. "The only way we could see to do that was to go long. … Ultimately what we prevailed with was a decade relationship including London, that includes all media rights, wireless, Facebook, Internet, [and] cable."

Roberts also previewed a major update to its Xfinity service, which includes a simplified remote control and an enhanced "Xcaliber" program guide with a new user interface that emphasizes what he described as a simplified more Apple-like way to view content, including a search engine that lets users discover program based on title, actors and actresses, and sports teams.  (Apple (AAPL) was clearly on his mind -- references to the Cupertino-based company's peppered the discussion.) The "MyTV" section highlighted weather and traffic cam apps, Pandora, and the Facebook feature "Friend Trends," announced last week, that surfaces TV programming based on how many Facebook friends like those shows.

One audience member asked Roberts for his thoughts on Netflix (NFLX):

"Whether its business prospects are good or over-hyped . . . your guess is as good as mine," he admitted. "But they do a lot of things really well and they resonate with consumers, so there will be people who try and copy that." For Comcast's broadband division, which he says sold more last year than the year prior, it's provided more business. (All that streaming video requires broadband pipes, after all.)

The flip side is more obvious: the rerun-heavy service could pose a threat to premium movie channels like say, HBO, which Comcast doesn't own. (HBO is a part of Time Warner (TWX), as is Time Inc., parent of Fortune.) As for whether Netflix poses a threat to cable providers, he says the "jury's out." "So far, it's not having much effect."

Comcast's overall finances this year appear to back up the company's optimism. The Internet, cable, and telephone operator saw its first quarter earnings rise 9% to $943 million year over year on sales of $12.1 billion, while adding a combined 1 million high-speed Internet, video and voice subscribers.

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JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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