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Comcast doubles down on TV in $16.7B deal for NBCU

LOS ANGELES — Comcast’s $16.7 billion deal to buy the remaining half of NBCUniversal ahead of schedule represents a resounding vote of confidence in the future of TV, even as the growth of Internet video reshapes the entertainment landscape.

The decision was driven largely by Comcast Corp.’s belief that it would end up paying substantially more for General Electric Co.’s remaining 49 percent stake if it had waited until 2018, as had been envisioned in 2011 when the nation’s largest cable TV provider acquired majority control of NBCUniversal.

“We didn’t have to do this now. We chose to do it,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a Wednesday interview on CNBC. “We’re bullish on the businesses we’re buying.”

The flagship NBC network, once seen as the deal’s albatross, has been on the turnaround. Broadcast TV revenue rose 5 percent last year, even after excluding the Super Bowl and the Olympics. Theme parks, the Universal Pictures movie studio and pay TV networks such as USA and SyFy have grown, too.

As the advertising market has rebounded with the economy, so have the fortunes of NBCUniversal and other media companies such as CBS Corp. and ABC owner The Walt Disney Co. That made the latest transaction seem like a savvy one at a relatively modest price.

“I think the television business has turned out to be much more powerful as an advertising medium than people were thinking five years ago,” said Jonathan Taplin, a professor specializing in digital media at the University of Southern California. “Comcast made a really smart move in believing that TV would continue to be a really important part of the advertising picture for years to come.”

When the deal was first announced in late 2009, NBC’s audience ratings were sagging badly, raising doubts about the future of the broadcast pioneer that once boasted stars such as Johnny Carson, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Tom Brokaw.

More recently, though, NBC has bounced back with a new hit in “The Voice” and has a consistent ratings leader in “Sunday Night Football” during the fall and early winter. By last fall, NBC could boast for the first time in a decade that it was drawing the most viewers in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic prized by advertisers. Overall, NBC still ranked behind CBS and ABC, but at least it was no longer bringing up the rear in fourth place, as had been the case for several years.

The deal, expected to be completed by the end of March, values NBCUniversal at $34 billion, not including $5 billion in debt. That’s about 13 percent higher than two years ago, when Comcast’s investment valued the company at about $30 billion, also excluding debt.

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