Comcast’s Roberts Frustrated by NBC Late-Night Woes

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts on Wednesday expressed his frustration with NBC’s late-night imbroglio, telling a Washington, D.C., audience that his company was effectively sidelined during the Leno-Conan meltdown.

“It is what it is. It’s a frustrating period because we are unable to be legally involved,” Roberts said, before going on to add that there are “many good things happening at NBC Universal.”

Speaking at a Congressional Internet Caucus event, Roberts noted that Comcast cannot intervene in NBC’s day-to-day business operations until the deal actually closes; as such, the company was forced to stand silent as NBC brought its 10 p.m. Leno experiment to a close.

Returning Leno to The Tonight Show came at the cost of a $45 million payout to Conan O’Brien, who last week elected to leave NBC rather than accept a 12:05 a.m. post.

Looking ahead, Roberts reiterated an earlier pledge to keep NBC in the broadcast business, saying that Comcast was committed to the legacy network TV business model, one that will continue  to include local station affiliates.

“We want to take that fear off the table,” Roberts said, addressing concerns that Comcast will convert NBC into a cable network if and when the company’s acquisition of a controlling interest in NBCU passes regulatory muster. “We think there is a vibrant role for local and national broadcast television and intend to keep NBC a free, over-the-air channel.”

Roberts also repeated his earlier support of Jeff Zucker, saying that the NBCU chief executive will serve as CEO of the new joint venture, reporting to Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke.

The cable giant on Monday filed formal notification of the acquisition with the U.S. Justice Department, taking the first step in a review process that could last between nine months and a year. Comcast has agreed to buy a 51 percent stake in NBCU from General Electric for $13.8 billion.

While Roberts anticipates a lengthy review, he said he is holding out some degree of hope that the process will move along at a steady clip. “You don’t want to keep 30,000 people on hold for too long,” he said. “However expeditiously that review can occur is very important to the company.”