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This Summer's Hottest Show

Tue, 07/31/2001 - 8:00pm
Roger Brown, Editorial Director, Broadband

Dr. John has all the ingredients to be this year’s J. R. Ewing
Roger Brown, Editorial Director, Broadband

In the latest case of life imitating art, Comcast's play to purchase AT&T Broadband is shaping up to be more compelling, surprising and intrigue-filled than most of the fare that's broadcast on primetime television every night.

Lead characters Ralph and Brian Roberts come on strong in the summer series pilot episode, cast as the low-key, likable heroes hell-bent on wresting control of the nation's largest cable operating company from a seemingly aging and beleaguered former good-guy, C. Michael Armstrong.

The first installment has the Robertses, owners of the third-largest cable company, making a bold, sudden offer to purchase the cable assets of the global telecom powerhouse for roughly $50 billion in Comcast stock. To gain maximum exposure, the Robertses announce their proposal through the media after cordial but fruitless talks between the two companies break down.

The protagonists proclaim that their offer to purchase AT&T's 16 million cable customers will be a boon to AT&T shareholders. They promise to do business "their way," which happens to be wildly more profitable than Armstrong's method.

Armstrong is clearly under attack in Episode 1, but refuses to give in. Surrounding himself with powerful allies and board members, he proclaims the Comcast takeover bid "inadequate." Rumors and speculation lead the viewer to believe there are other, more lucrative, offers in the making.

Malone, the former chief of TCI and Armstrong's nemesis, immediately distances himself from Armstrong by resigning his board seat. But the villainous Dr. John has all the ingredients to be the dastardly devil–sort of this year's version of J.R. Ewing.

Armstrong and Roberts have crossed paths before–with Armstrong coming out on top. He sabotaged Comcast's attempted purchase of coveted MediaOne by outbidding the Roberts family at the eleventh hour. To keep things civil, Armstrong threw Roberts some cash and a few hundred thousand subscribers, but that did little to assuage the humiliation.

We also learn how Armstrong, hailed as a business hero while at the helm of Hughes' DirecTV unit, was punished by investors who realized he overpaid TCI in his zeal to build the world's ultimate converged company. The loss of confidence forced him to change strategy mid-stream and break the company into pieces to maximize shareholder value.

But that singular event put Armstrong–and AT&T–in play. By proclaiming that the Broadband unit is more valuable when broken off, he exposes it to all potential suitors. It could be the most critical mistake of his tenure–and might lead to his own horrific downfall.

The scriptwriters are keeping the final scenes a closely guarded secret. Insiders speculate that Malone is secretly planning a triumphant return to the helm. Other scenarios and plot spins suggest there are roles for the likes of Amos Hostetter or Leo Hindery in some sort of "Rat Pack" reunion. This one's sure to keep viewers riveted to their seats throughout the summer.

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