BREAKING NEW GROUND: THE 1970s11/18/2013 12:00 AM Eastern
As Comcast expanded its footprint in the South and in Roberts’s home state of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, it chose to build cable systems with state-of-the-art technology that would deliver 12 channels of service.
That all sounded great until executives realized they needed to fill all that space with something. Necessity is always the mother of invention and the Comcast crew knew they had to get creative. Comcast fashioned a news channel of sorts that consisted putting a camera on an Associated Press news ticker. Bubba, the goldfish, was the star of the Meridian, Miss., meditation channel and an early version of The Weather Channel aimed another camera at a bunch of weather instruments.
By 1971, co-founders Ralph Roberts, Julian Brodsky and Daniel Aaron were ready for primetime. The company went public with shares opening on June 30, 1972, at $7. It’s been quite a run: 1,000 of those $7 shares would be worth more than $6.5 million today, Brodsky told Multichannel News.
“The secret sauce to our longevity and existence from day one was the Class-B super-voting shares,” which enabled Roberts to maintain control of the company, Brodsky said. “Those shares are very powerful and because of that structure, management could think long-term rather than quarter-to-quarter.
“And because we were bulletproof, no one could buy us,” he recalled. “It was inevitable that we would be the last company standing.”
With its new public currency and Brodsky’s creative and lucrative financial acumen, Comcast continued to expand its footprint. The company focused on smaller communities like Flint, Mich., choosing to eschew larger, more urban areas. It wasn’t that the partners didn’t like cities, but smaller communities were a better bet: Fewer TV options and often poor TV reception meant eager, truck-chasing consumers.
That attitude would change over the next several years as satellite-delivered programming became more prevalent. Comcast launched HBO for the first time in 1977 to 20,000 customers in Western Pennsylvania with a free five-night preview. After the preview period, more than 3,000 customers ordered the service. It wasn’t hard to see where the business was headed and that meant vying for urban customers was a more viable business proposition.
Ralph Roberts had five kids but it was his youngest, Brian, who was always engaged in dinnertime talk about the cable business. He announced early on his intention to work in the family biz.
In 1976, Brian Roberts got his first cable gig as an installer at Comcast’s Westmoreland, Pa., cable system, where he learned how to install cable in homes, handle service calls and climb poles.