Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts said Thursday that Comcast doesn't expect to make a giant profit from the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but defended its heavy spending to acquire rights to additional Olympic telecasts.
"I am so glad we stomached it," he said of Comcast's 2011 agreement to spend $4.38 billion to acquire additional rights.
"It is a fantastic platform for our company."
Speaking to the Economic Club of Washington, Roberts cited NBC Universal's successful use of the London Olympics to launch "The Voice" as just one example of the kind of synergies and promotional opportunities that having the Olympics package offers Comcast.
"As a business matter, it is the engine, but in and of itself we are not expecting it to make a huge profit," Roberts said in answering a question from the club's president, David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group.
Roberts said that the addition of golf as an Olympic sport in Rio will add to the benefits, allowing NBCU to offer even more choices of events on its broadcast and cable channel. The biggest benefit, he said, however, is the Olympic package's visibility to distribution partners and to employees.
Roberts said Comcast had expected viewership of the London summer games last year would drop 10 percent from Beijing four years earlier both because of the time-zone change and because the 2012 games wouldn't have Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals.
Instead, viewership for the London games rose 10 percent, allowing NBCU to break even instead of taking a $200 million loss. "If that continues in Sochi [Russia, home of the 2014 winter games] and beyond, that will be OK," he said.
Roberts during a Q&A session generally sidestepped specific questions about NBCU.
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Asked about reports that Jimmy Fallon would soon take over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno, he said, "I think Jay Leno is fantastic," but then declined to discuss "personnel matters."
"I think [NBCU president-CEO] Steve Burke is doing a marvelous job," said Roberts, calling the high-visibility TV network business "an imperfect business where everything is in a fish bowl."
Roberts described NBCU Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt as "a super person picking shows" but otherwise declined to discuss NBCU's fortunes.
Roberts said Comcast's biggest surprise of its NBCU purchase turned up in an unexpected place. It was the value of the NBCU's "Harry Potter" theme-park concept.
"A business that we didn't count on that has proved to be amazing was the theme park business," he said. "We had the company signed up and we had to wait a year to close and in the middle of that Harry Potter opened up in Orlando. Attendance surged 40 percent every day since then.
"We have about a billion dollars in cash flow coming from theme parks. We had zero in our business model when we bought the company," said Roberts, adding Comcast is planning additional theme parks in the U.S. and overseas.
Roberts announced at the event that Comcast would begin rolling out voice actuated remote controls to its subscribers.