Ralph Roberts, Founder of Comcast Cable Television, Dies at 95

Ralph Roberts
Comcast founder Ralph Roberts. Photographer: Joe Kohen/WireImage

Ralph Roberts, the founder and chairman emeritus of Comcast Corp. who transformed the company into the largest U.S. cable-television operator, has died. He was 95.

He died on June 18 in Philadelphia of natural causes, the company said in a statement.

Roberts co-founded American Cable Systems Inc. in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1963 as a 1,200-subscriber service, and later renamed it Comcast. He served as chairman of the company for 18 years until 2002, when he became chairman emeritus, and his son, Brian, took over as chairman and chief executive officer.

Comcast, based in Philadelphia, has expanded as a cable operator and an entertainment company providing television, Internet and telephone services. It grew through acquisitions such as the purchase of AT&T Broadband in 2002 for $58.7 billion and NBC Universal, through two deals with General Electric Co., for about $30.5 billion in cash and assets. In February 2014, Comcast agreed to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. for $45.2 billion, combining the two largest U.S. cable companies. In April, Comcast dropped its bid and Time Warner Cable has since agreed to be acquired by Charter Communications Inc.

“Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being,” the company said in the statement. “His vision and spirit have been at the heart of Comcast and our culture for 50 years. He will be truly missed.”

Expansion Strategy

Roberts began to broaden Comcast’s reach beyond Mississippi through acquisitions, expanding north to Pennsylvania in 1971.

Comcast had its initial public offering the following year. At the time, paying for TV viewing was a novel concept.

“Who would pay for television when you can get it for free?” Roberts said in the 2003 book “Wired to Win: Entrepreneurs of the American Cable Industry,” written by Kathi Brown.

That thinking changed in the late 1970s, after HBO began satellite distribution. Roberts and other cable founders, including Cablevision Systems Corp.’s Charles Dolan and billionaire telecommunications investor John Malone, began targeting urban areas for service.

By the mid-1980s, Comcast had 500,000 subscribers and paying for television was becoming more common, helped by Time Inc.’s HBO. Comcast more than doubled its subscribers after teaming up with Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc. and Time Inc. to purchase Group W cable properties from Westinghouse in 1985. The company’s subscribers jumped to more than 2 million after acquiring Storer Communications from KKR & Co. in 1988. Comcast established headquarters in Philadelphia in 1989.

Starts QVC

Roberts also co-founded home-shopping network QVC Inc. with Joe Segel in 1986. In 1994, he teamed with Malone again to scuttle a bid for CBS from Barry Diller, then the chairman of QVC, by making his own bid to take over all of QVC.

``Ralph is tough,’’ Diller said, according to a 1997 New York Times story. ``Under that bow tie and courtly manner beats the heart of one tough man. He is steel.’’

The successful entrance into TV content led Comcast to invest in more cable networks, including the Golf Channel and Outdoor Life Network before acquiring E! Entertainment Networks from Walt Disney Co. in 1997.

The same year, Comcast bought its first regional sports network, for Philadelphia professional teams.

Roberts remained on the board of directors of Comcast. He transferred his voting common shares to his son, Brian, in 2000.

Ralph Joel Roberts was born in New York on March 13, 1920. His father, Robert, was a manufacturing chemist and pharmacist. His mother, Sara, sold insurance.

Before starting Comcast, Roberts was an account executive at the advertising agency Aitkin Kynett and later vice president at Muzak LP, which provided music to businesses. Roberts worked at Pioneer Industries, a men’s clothing-accessories company, where he was CEO from 1956 to 1961.

Wharton School

Roberts graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School with a degree in economics and served four years in the U.S. Navy. He also participated in continuing education programs at Harvard Business School.

Roberts was named to Broadcasting and Cable’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2000, he was inducted into the Cable Center’s Hall of Fame. He served on the boards of the Council of Emeritus Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Brandywine Museum and Conservancy, as well as the advisory board of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, and the Penn Medicine Board of Trustees, University of Pennsylvania Health System.

In addition to his son, Brian, survivors include his wife of 73 years, Suzanne Roberts; three other children, Catherine R. Clifton, Lisa S. Roberts and Ralph Roberts Jr; and eight grandchildren. A son, Douglas Roberts, died in 2011.

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