By Glenn Rifkin
Ralph J. Roberts, who at the dawn of the cable television industry bought a small cable service in Tupelo, Miss., and built it into Comcast, today the largest cable television company in the nation, died Thursday night in Philadelphia. He was 95.
The company announced his death.
In 1963, Mr. Roberts was a little-known entrepreneur who had sold Muzak systems and men’s belts and suspenders, but he was ambitious and always scouting for new business opportunities.
Already in his 40s, he was approached by a Philadelphia acquaintance named Dan Aaron, who alerted him to a 1,200-subscriber cable television system for sale in Tupelo. Intrigued by the nascent cable industry’s potential and aided by Mr. Aaron and Julian Brodsky, a Philadelphia accountant, Mr. Roberts decided to invest, overcoming his own initial misgivings and the even stronger doubts of his wife, Suzanne, who, he said, thought he "was absolutely crazy."
"The cable business, you put up a tower, you run a line down through the telephone poles, you charge everybody $5 a month, and you don’t do anything, so it didn’t seem very appealing to me," Mr. Roberts recalled in receiving a television industry award in 2003. "But as I began to look at what was happening, I realized the cable business was the best of all the ones I had invested in, and decided to go forward full boat."
Comcast, the company that the venture became (with Mr. Aaron and Mr. Brodsky as its first two employees), has 27.2 million subscribers and produced $68.8 billion in revenue in 2014, the company said. Comcast is also one of the largest residential telephone providers in the United States.
The soft-spoken, affable Mr. Roberts never acquired the outsize public profile of cable pioneers like Ted Turner, John C. Malone, Charles F. Dolan and John Rigas, but his impact was comparable to theirs in making cable television a culture-changing industry — giving viewers hundreds of channels, where they once had little more than a dozen, and persuading them to pay for something that had always been free.
"The industry as we know it today — that is generating enormous revenues and is the way that most American consumers get their television — was invented by Ralph Roberts and these other cable barons," said Josh Bernoff, a media analyst.
Their simple philosophy was summed up by Mr. Roberts in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. "The fundamental fact is that people love television," he said, "and if you can provide them with more television, they love it even more."
Mr. Roberts built Comcast through a series of acquisitions of cable systems around the country. In later years, he did so with his son Brian L. Roberts, to whom he turned over the company’s presidency in 1990 when Brian was 30 years old. The elder Mr. Roberts kept the titles of chairman and chief executive. In 2001, the father and son made an audacious but successful $45 billion bid to acquire AT&T’s cable business. The deal made Comcast the nation’s largest cable operator.
Under Brian Roberts, Comcast has built on its standing as a cable television power to become a media and entertainment giant in content creation and Internet and voice services.
In 2011, fulfilling the Robertses’ long-held interest in NBC, Comcast acquired a majority stake in NBCUniversal from General Electric for $6.5 billion; in doing so, it became one of the industry’s leading content producers.
Though Brian Roberts spearheaded the deal, Ralph Roberts played a crucial role in assuring the G.E. chief executive, Jeffrey R. Immelt, that the deal would be completed. At one point, Ralph Roberts met with Mr. Immelt without Brian Roberts. Mr. Immelt "was aware that many deals don’t get concluded," the elder Mr. Roberts was quoted as saying in "The Incredible Dream," a 2012 biography by William Novak, "and he wanted some reassurance from the father of the groom that we wouldn’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers."
In February 2013, Comcast paid $16.7 billion to purchase the remaining stake in NBCUniversal.
In 2014, Comcast proposed a $45.2 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. The deal stirred up widespread opposition from factions who feared that the resulting cable industry giant would stifle competition and hurt consumers. The acquisition, which faced scrutiny from Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, was scuttled in April of this year.
Mr. Roberts, typically dapper in his signature bow tie and Brooks Brothers suits, became his son’s mentor and sounding board, and the two were admired as a potent business partnership while never displaying the kind of strained and tempestuous relationship that can flare when a son succeeds a successful father.
"Since I was 12, all I wanted to do was work with my dad," Brian Roberts said in an interview for this obituary. "I believe the reason we are still in this business when so many others have long since departed was his will to succeed, and to do it with certain core values and integrity. Maybe it was losing both his parents before he was 21, living through the Depression, but somehow he became an optimist. He was the most optimistic man I ever knew. He never told me anything I wanted to do at Comcast was a bad idea, and after more than 30 years, you’d think I’ve had a lot of bad ideas."
Ralph Joel Roberts was born on March 13, 1920, in New York. His father, Robert Max Roberts, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who prospered with a string of pharmacies in the city. He moved his family to New Rochelle, N.Y., when Ralph was 5.
After Robert Roberts died in 1932, Ralph’s mother, Sara, moved the family to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, to be near her ailing sister. Philadelphia became Mr. Roberts’s business base and the arena for his philanthropy.
He graduated with an economics degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Navy as World War II was beginning, serving at the Philadelphia Navy Yard for the duration of the war. In 1942, he married Suzanne Fleisher, an aspiring actress from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. The couple celebrated 70 years of marriage in 2012. After his wedding, Mr. Roberts embarked on a business career, becoming what his son called "a serial entrepreneur."
One early venture was selling an innovative golf putter. He managed to get a photograph of Bob Hope holding the club and asked him to endorse it, "to help out a veteran," Mr. Roberts recalled, but there was never any formal agreement. Despite that, Mr. Roberts named the club the Bob Hope Centric putter and began selling it around the country. When the club proved to be poorly made, however — the shaft "bent like a pretzel," Mr. Roberts said — he quickly exited the business.
Mr. Roberts later worked in advertising at the Aitkin-Kynett agency, writing slogans for the Democrat William Benton, a successful United States Senate candidate from Connecticut who defeated Prescott S. Bush, the father and grandfather of two presidents, in 1950. (Mr. Bush won the state’s other Senate seat two years later.)
Mr. Roberts later took jobs with the Muzak Corporation and the Pioneer Suspender Company, which sold men’s belts and cologne. He rose to president and chief executive at Pioneer and eventually bought the company. He sold it in 1961 to form his own venture capital firm, the International Equity Corporation, from which he began his foray into cable television.
In the meantime, he and his wife had five children. Brian, born in 1959, was the fourth. Though his father called Comcast a "family business," Brian was the only one of the children to show a serious interest in working with his father. That the others did not never fazed Ralph Roberts, who encouraged them to pursue their own interests.
Besides his son Brian, Mr. Roberts is survived by his wife, the host of the Comcast Network program "Seeking Solutions With Suzanne," aimed at viewers 50 and older; two daughters, Catherine Clifton and Lisa Roberts; another son, Ralph Jr.; and eight grandchildren. His son Douglas died in 2011.
In a high-pressure corporate world that demands long hours from its executives, Mr. Roberts was proud to say that he was sure to be home for dinner with his wife and children nearly every night. He told his biographer that his greatest accomplishment was "that all my children speak to me frequently."