How Comcast founder Ralph Roberts changed cable (+video)
Comcast founder Ralph J. Roberts died Thursday night, the company announced Friday. Roberts transformed Comcast from a tiny cable provider in Mississippi to one of the most powerful (and sometimes hated) companies in the US.
Comcast founder Ralph J. Roberts died Thursday night in Philadelphia, the company announced Friday.
After starting Comcast as a small cable service in northern Mississippi, Roberts led the company to become the US’s largest video, high-speed Internet and phone provider to residential customers.
"Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being,” Comcast said in a statement. “Ralph built Comcast into one of America's greatest companies and his vision and spirit have been at the heart of Comcast and our culture for 50 years.”
After attending University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and serving in the US Navy for four years, Roberts went on to work for several companies, including the Muzak company and Pioneer Suspender Co. His involvement with communications began with the purchase of local community antenna television systems, which brought TV to people too far from a big city to get reception over the air, according to a 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article.
Roberts and his partners founded American Cable Systems in 1963 through purchasing a 1,200-subscriber cable system in Tupelo, Mississippi. They incorporated in 1969 as Comcast Corporation., which Roberts came up by combining the words communications and broadcasting. From 1963 until 2002, he served as chairman of the board. Roberts was Comcast’s president for 21 years until 1990, when he passed the role to his son Brian L. Roberts.
"Ralph Roberts is the absolutely most clear-cut example of the American dream," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "From selling belts door-to-door to creating the largest entertainment and technology corporation in the United States of America - it's an incredible success story.”
Comcast's rise has not been without controversy. Consumerist dubbed Comcast as the "worst company in America" in 2014. Recently, the cable company has gained infamy for its poor customer service. Among other incidents, back in February, a Chicago-area woman received her bill from Comcast that addressed her as a derogatory slur for a woman instead of her actual name after she complained to the company she had not received bills several months. One couple recorded its phone call with a Comcast customer representative who kept them on the line for a long period questioning them on why they wanted to cancel their subscription after they switched to another provider.
David Cohen, Comcast’s executive vice president, has admitted that the company needs better customer service. "It bothers us we have so much trouble delivering high quality of service to customers on a regular basis," he said, according to the Washington Post. "Sometimes, we need a kick in the butt."
The flack Comcast has gotten for its customer service hasn't hurt its profitability. The company’s revenue in 2015’s first fiscal quarter alone increased 2.6 percent to nearly $18 billion. In 2014, its revenue grew 6.4 percent to $68.8 billion. Comcast’s financial success has enabled the company to expand its empire through various purchases, including NBCUniversal and AT&T. But the size and scope of the cable provider has actually stopped Comcast from completely taking over cable: its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable fell through earlier this year, when the Federal Communications Commission nixed the deal, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.
American Cable Association, an organization that represents small and medium-sized independent operators and has fought with Comcast on its power in the past, praised Roberts on Friday.
"Amid a digital revolution that disrupted and confused so many in the business world, Ralph Roberts saw the future clearly and encouraged Comcast to become a broadband and technology innovator benefiting industry and consumers here and around the world," President and CEO Matthew M. Polka said in a press release. "At heart, Mr. Roberts was an entrepreneur like so many of our members, and we will miss his passion for our industry."
Outside of his business pursuits, Roberts and his family were involved in various community and philanthropy efforts. He served on the boards of several organization, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition. Recently, he and his wife Suzanne received the Philadelphia Award to recognize their contributions to the city in business, philanthropy, and arts and culture.
In addition to his wife of more than 70 years, Roberts is survived by four of his children and eight grandchildren.