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Roberts, Ralph Joel

Roberts, Ralph Joel

Comcast Corporation


Ralph J. Roberts is the founder and chairman of Comcast Corporation, which he built from a single cable television system into one of the leading communications companies in the world. Comcast Cable is the third–largest cable services provider in the United States. Comcast Corporation develops, manages, and operates a number of broadband services including digital cable and high–speed cable modem Internet access. The company also provides original programming content through its ownership of The Golf Channel, Comcast SportsNet, Comcast–Spectacor, and the home–shopping network QVC, provider of television and Internet shopping in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. Comcast also holds a controlling interest in E! Entertainment Television.

Personal Life

Ralph and Suzanne Roberts were married in 1942. They have five children: Catherine, Lisa, Ralph Jr., Brian, and Douglas. The family lives in Fallowfield, Pennsylvania. Roberts enjoys horseback riding on his horse farm in Chester County and fox hunting (of the variety where the fox is merely chased into a burrow, not killed).

A charter member of the World Business Council, Roberts has served on the boards of Philadelphia Electric Co. and CoreStates Financial Corp. and was trustee of the Albert Einstein Medical Center. Active in civic affairs, he holds a seat on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Emeritus Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Brandywine Museum and Conservancy, and serves on the advisory board of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition. Among the honors bestowed on him during his career are the Distinguished Vanguard Award for Leadership from the National Cable Television Association, and Temple University's Acres of Diamonds Entrepreneurial Excellence Award. He also received the Americanism Award of the Anti–Defamation League of B'nai Brith, and the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Roberts was born on March 13, 1920 in New York City to Robert and Sara Wahl Roberts. He grew up in New Rochelle, a picturesque New York suburb. When Roberts was 12 years old, his father died suddenly of a heart attack and consequently, the family moved to a working–class neighborhood of Germantown, Philadelphia. This move to less–desirable circumstances affected young Ralph, who would strive to obtain financial security for his own children later in life. He graduated with a degree in economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and served for four years as a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II.

Returning from military service, Ralph Roberts got his first entrepreneurial start by joining with an engineer to form a small business. Later, he got a job as an account executive at Philadelphia–based Aitken Kynett Advertising. One of the agency's clients was Muzak, the company that introduced background music to America in the 1920s. In 1948 Roberts became a vice president for Aitken Kynett and was responsible for advertising, marketing, public relations, and sales promotion. He left the company two years later.

In 1950 Roberts dove into a completely different line of work by joining the Pioneer Suspender Co., the second–largest manufacturer and distributor of men's accessories. Six years later Roberts bought the company, which by then had grown to become Pioneer Industries. Later convinced that beltless men's pants would be the way of the future, he sold the company to Hickok Manufacturing in 1961. Roberts then established the venture capital firm International Equity Corp. (IEC), which dealt primarily in the men's toiletries and cosmetics industry. Through IEC, Roberts helped launch six new businesses over the next three years.

Career Details

In 1963 Daniel Aaron, a business broker, approached Roberts with a 1,900–subscriber cable system that was for sale. At the time, cable was not the sophisticated network of hundreds of stations and alternative programming that it would become, but was merely a means of obtaining clear television reception. Still, its outlook appeared promising to Roberts, so he bought the Mississippi–based system. Although cable was far from Roberts' area of expertise, his economic background prompted him to make the purchase. "I was never, never nervous about buying a cable system," he told USA Today in 2001. "You have recurring billing, reasonable rate increases, you keep your costs down and it's like chicken in a grocery store. It's very nice."

Daniel Aaron was recruited to assist in the operation of the business, called American Cable Systems, and later went on to become Comcast's vice chairman. To complete his new team, Roberts also hired Julian Brodsky, who had been employed by an accounting firm that had worked with Pioneer Industries. Brodsky later became Comcast's senior vice president and chief financial officer.

Roberts expanded the company slowly at first, carefully building the franchise over the next ten years. In 1969 the name American Cable Systems was changed to Comcast, a combination of "communications" and "broadcast." The company went public in 1972. Comcast was running smoothly thanks to the management team of Roberts, Aaron, and Brodsky who had built an excellent reputation in the industry for their corporate compatibility. In 1975 the cable industry underwent a significant change when Home Box Office (HBO) began operation, offering subscribers something brand new. The network's launch piqued Roberts' interest in cable television as he had considered cable "dull as dishwater" until that point.

Roberts expanded Comcast via acquisitions throughout the 1980s. His financing and operation of these newly purchased systems was innovative, with each system individually financed and responsible for itself, thereby insulating Comcast from the failure of any of its units. This business practice, among other savvy strategies, drew attention from Wall Street analysts and Comcast began earning a favorable reputation. In 1984 Roberts orchestrated a landmark deal, partnering with Time Inc. and Tele–Communications Inc. (TCI) to acquire the cable operator Group W. This was a major coup for Comcast, which at the time was only the 16th–largest cable company in the nation.

Cable was allowed further expansion during the 1980s when the federal government loosened restrictions on the new industry. Since Roberts had foreseen this change, Comcast was fully prepared to move forward in its new environment. The company made its initial investment in the home–shopping cable network QVC in 1986. Two years later Comcast bought half of Storer Communications, thereby increasing its subscription base to more than 3 million and making it the fifth–largest cable operator in the nation. Also in 1988 Comcast entered into the cellular telecommunications industry when it acquired American Cellular Network (AMCELL), which had a base of 2 million customers. In a few years, when the tide reversed and cable regulations, including a maximum on rates, were gradually reintroduced, Roberts had again prepared for the change and had placed Comcast in a position to deal with the new restrictions. Some industry experts have credited his foresight in these and other matters as one of Roberts' greatest assets.

In 1981 his son Brian joined the management team of Comcast, the only one of Roberts' children to follow him into the family business. In 1989 Ralph Roberts stepped down as company president yet retained his position as chairman, and Brian assumed the presidency the following year.

Chronology: Ralph Joel Roberts

1920: Born.

1963: Bought American Cable Systems.

1969: Renamed company Comcast.

1972: Comcast went public.

1984: Partnered with TCI and Time to purchase Group W.

1986: Made initial investment in QVC.

1988: Became fifth–largest cable operator.

1989: Stepped down as president.

1996: Formed Comcast–Spectacor.

1997: Received $1 billion from Microsoft to launch networks.

1998: Acquired Jones Intercable.

2001: Bid on AT & T Broadband.

The father and son team continued the company's expansion throughout the 1990s. In 1992 Comcast combined its AMCELL properties with Metrophone, widening the service area to 7 million customers. The next year the company backed an unsuccessful bid by QVC to acquire Paramount Communications, but lost to Viacom. Comcast became the third–leading cable operator when it acquired Maclean Hunter, adding 550,000 subscribers. In 1995 it bought a 57–percent controlling interest in QVC, which would later account for nearly half of Comcast's billions of dollars in sales. That same year it acquired the cable systems of E.W. Scripps, adding 800,000 subscribers and bringing Comcast's total to 4.3 million. In 1996 Comcast formed Comcast–Spectacor, a sports venture and owner of the Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball team, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, the First Union Spectrum, and the First Union Center. Comcast SportsNet, a regional sports channel, was established soon after that. Partnering with the Walt Disney Co., the company bought E! Entertainment Networks in 1997. Comcast was also an early entrant into cable modems and digital television and in 1997 it landed a $1 billion investment from Microsoft Corp. to launch its networks. In 1998 Comcast increased the number of its subscribers by 1.1 million with the acquisition of Jones Intercable.

Never complacent, the company continued to deal, strengthening its central operations while eliminating peripheral businesses. In 1999 its wireless division was sold to SBC Communications for $1.7 billion. Comcast lost to AT & T Corp. in the bidding for MediaOne, but received $1.5 billion and two million AT & T subscribers as part of the termination agreement. Undeterred, Comcast continued its expansion, gaining 1.3 million cable subscribers by acquiring Lenfest Communication in 2000. The following year it acquired Home Team Sports, the Golf Channel, and Outdoor Life Network.

In July 2001 AT & T Broadband, the leading cable operator in North America, was put up for sale. Comcast eagerly put in its bid, as did AOL Time Warner, the Walt Disney Co., Cox Communications, and Microsoft Corp. If Comcast's bid succeeds, its subscription base of 22 million would make it the largest cable operator in the United States.

Social and Economic Impact

Ralph Roberts transformed a single local cable network into one the leading communications and media companies in the nation, operating in the arenas of cable service, broadband Internet access, and television programming. Roberts' bottom–line attitude and solid understanding of business kept the company on sure footing as it steadily grew into the conglomerate that it was in the early twenty–first century. Of the company's confidence in cable as the way of the future, Roberts' son Brian, Comcast president and director, told USA Today, "If the most exciting thing happening in the world is the Internet, we're your best connection. If television is the device people use the most every day, we're your connection to television. If it's telephony, we can be in that business, too."

Ralph Roberts told USA Today that he has never sold a franchise, and that he still owns the Mississippi operation that started in all in 1963. Thanks to his foresight, keen eye for acquisitions, and willingness to explore new territories, Comcast had 8.4 million subscribers and revenues in excess of $8.2 billion in 2000, and enjoyed its status as the third–largest cable operator in the United States.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Comcast Corporation
1500 Market St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102–2148
Business Phone: (215)665–1700


"About Us." Philadelphia: Comcast Corporation. November 2001. Available at

"Comcast Corporation." Hoover's Online, Inc., November 2001. Available at

Eiley, Brahm. "Cable Battles Shaping Up with AT & T's Future in Question." Financial Post, 8 November 2001, 15.

Lieberman, David. "Father–Son Odd Couple Make Bid to Rule Cable: One's Calm, One's Wary, Together They're Comcast." USA Today, 23 July 2001, B1.

McGraw, Dan. "No Ordinary Cable Guys: Ralph and Brian Roberts, a Father–and–Son Team, Have Wired Comcast for the Future." U.S. News & World Report, 8 July 1996, 44.

"Muzak History." Fort Mill, SC: Muzak LLC. November 2001. Available at

"Ralph J. Roberts." The Cable Center, 2001. Available at

"Ralph Joel Roberts." Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2001.

"SBC Communications Acquires Comcast Cellular." San Antonio Business Journal, 20 January 1999.

Stern, Christopher. "A Philadelphia Story: Comcast's Roberts Family Built a Business Poised to Become a Media Colossus." The Washington Post, 10 July 2001, E1.

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