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Remembering Comcast's Ralph Roberts

The US cable industry has lost a legend.

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) announced Friday morning that its Co-Founder and longtime CEO and Chairman, Ralph Roberts, passed away Thursday night in Philadelphia. The 95-year-old Roberts, who led Comcast for more than 45 years, died of natural causes.

Ralph Roberts -- a cable pioneer remembered and respected throughout the industry for his trademark bow ties, business savvy, gentle wit, grace and general integrity -- entered the business in the early 1960s in a classic American Dream way. A Wharton School graduate and US Navy veteran, he held various jobs after leaving the service, including selling golf clubs and working for the canned music pioneer Muzak Company. He then moved on to the Pioneer Suspender Company, which he eventually took over.

Fearing that his suspender company couldn't compete against the advent of Sansabelt's belt-less pants, Roberts sold Pioneer and used the proceeds to start buying local community antenna television systems in rural areas. With his two partners, Daniel Arron and Julian Brodsky, he bought a 1,200-subscriber cable system in Tupelo, Miss., called American Cable Systems for $500,000 in 1963. The partners then incorporated their company as Comcast Corp. in 1969, a name that Roberts crafted by combining the words communications and broadcasting.

As the US cable industry grew over the next few decades, Comcast expanded by leaps and bounds, buying up other cable operators in droves. By the time the 30-year-old Brian Roberts succeeded his father as company president in early 1990, Comcast had become a $4 billion company and one of the nation's leading cable operators.

In one of the rare instances of a successful generational transfer of a major company, Brian Roberts has followed in his father's footsteps, turning Comcast into North America's biggest cable, media and entertainment conglomerate with nearly $69 billion in annual revenues and 140,000 employees. Largely in recognition of this feat, Light Reading inducted the younger Roberts into its Hall of Fame last year. (See Light Reading Hall of Fame 2014.)

But, even as son Brian took over full control of Comcast, the elder Roberts never faded totally from the scene. As Brian often noted publicly, Ralph remained a trusted adviser to him and his company on business matters as Comcast developed into a dominant force in the US communications industry.

Warm tributes to Ralph Roberts have been pouring in from top industry executives, cable trade groups, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler and other luminaries all day. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Suzanne Roberts, their four children and eight grandchildren.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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