By GERALDINE FABRIKANT
THREE years ago, with the cable television industry in the doldrums, the Comcast Corporation's chairman, Brian L. Roberts, approached Mel Karmazin, then the president of Viacom, with a modest proposal: give Comcast the right to show programming from such Viacom properties as CBS and MTV on the cable company's channels so it could have a leg up on its rivals.
Mr. Roberts was accompanied by one of his senior managers and he vividly recalls Mr. Karmazin's reaction. "He scrunched up his eyes, looked at us and said, 'So you want us to give you all this stuff for free and people will use it on video?' " Mr. Roberts recalled with a laugh. "And we said, 'Yes, that's what we want.'
"No, no, no. Let me tell you want I would like to do," Mr. Karmazin responded. "I would like to put my head down on the desk, close my eyes, and when I count to 10 and look up, I want you both out of my office."
Mr. Karmazin, who now runs Sirius Satellite Radio, confirmed the story. "We were a content company with valuable content, and every opportunity we had to charge for my content, I would do it," he said. "It was not in my DNA to give away valuable content for free."
Even today, Mr. Roberts recalls Mr. Karmazin's reaction as typical of those misguided souls who fail to realize that consumers increasingly have the ability to record and watch programs where and when they want. "A person who wants to watch 'CSI' or 'Desperate Housewives' when the programs are not on, they are going to do it anyway," he observed. "As a content owner, you should want them to watch your show."
Brian Roberts has always conducted himself thus - with a straightforward, plain-spoken, that's-the-way-the-world-works approach to his company, his customers and his competitors. Those qualities have stood Comcast in good stead as it emerges from a gloomy period in which (even though it was making scads of money, thank you) some analysts had written it off as a moribund, wire-bound behemoth doomed to be eclipsed by more nimble telecommunications concerns.
Today, the entire cable business, and Comcast, the country's largest cable company, are sitting pretty. Amid the scramble that will decide which companies provide consumers with the flood of new media, entertainment and communications services, cable suddenly looks to be the winner. Analysts now say cable operators are better positioned than their rivals. Until quite recently, however, that wasn't a foregone conclusion because Wall Street - even discounting the myopia that often distorts its vision - had good cause to be pessimistic.