Brian Roberts' Jewish Roots and Outsized Ambition Drive Comcast's Rise in Media

Philadelphia Cable Guy Builds Family Business Into Empire

Cable Guy: Brian Roberts took over his father’s Philadelphia business and turned into a major player in the media world.
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Cable Guy: Brian Roberts took over his father’s Philadelphia business and turned into a major player in the media world.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 02, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
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A huge merger may turn the son of a Philadelphia Jewish entrepreneur into one of the most powerful Americans in the media industry.

Brian Roberts, 54, chairman and CEO of Comcast, a cable and broadband provider that announced on February 13 its intention to take over Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion deal, seeks to control the cable services of more than 32 million American homes, which would make him the unchallenged leader in the field.

The merger — which still needs congressional and regulatory approval — marks the latest step in the Roberts family’s long road from a modest start by his father and two Jewish partners in Tupelo, Miss. 50 years ago, to becoming America’s largest provider of home media content.

Roberts, a Maccabiah Games squash gold medalist known for his affinity for Israel, has not made his mark on Jewish life. But his Jewish identity, friends say, should not be doubted.

“Brian’s commitment to religion and Jewish causes is like every other thing he does: It is extremely personal and low-profile,” Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, told the Forward. Roberts, he added, “does not carry these things on his chest.”

But it is part of his company’s DNA. Comcast was established in 1969 by Roberts’s father Ralph and his two Jewish partners, Daniel Aaron and Julian Brodsky. During a poker game, Ralph Roberts had heard about a small cable company in Tupelo looking for investors and the three partners decided to step in.

Aaron’s family had escaped growing anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and arrived in New York in 1937. Both his parents committed suicide shortly after and Aaron and his brother were placed in foster families by a Jewish relief agency. Years later, Aaron said that his life was lived in the “shadow of the Holocaust.” When Brian Roberts joined the family company, Aaron was his first boss. “He had the greatest heart and social conscience,” Roberts recalled when discussing his involvement with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Aaron died in 2003 from Parkinson’s disease.

Brodsky, the third founder of Comcast, stayed with the company until his retirement in 2011. He served as vice chairman and is credited with pushing Comcast into the internet business, but when it came time to pass the business on to the next generation, Ralph Roberts, who by then owned a larger share of the company, brought in his son to take over. Brodsky and his wife Lois run a $10 million family foundation that supports many communal and progressive causes, including Jewish services and organizations.

Ralph Roberts’s approach to business was shaped by the Great Depression. He grew up in an affluent Jewish family, but when fortunes turned, the family lost all, teaching young Ralph about the need for caution and saving. He purchased a belt and suspenders company, sold it when competition grew, and then moved on to cable TV, a field that was controlled at the time by small local companies. A supporter of Jewish organizations, Ralph Roberts has been honored by the Anti-Defamation League and by B’nai B’rith International. His wife, Suzanne Roberts, is an actress and television host.


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