Comcast's Universal Warning Cry

Tough to admit that one of the businesses you bought as part of a big overall media deal is moving tragically in the wrong direction.

Steve Burke, president/CEO of NBC Universal, a company now majority-owned by Comcast Corp. said as much at a recent media outing, according to The Wrap: “The movie business is in steady decline.”

Mind you, Universal Studios’ Ron Meyer has done a decent job of keeping the business profitable in recent year, compared with other studios.

For his part, Burke doesn’t really get too involved and lets Meyer do his stuff. That makes sense, since the movie business is not something Comcast executives know well. Comcast knows TV – and especially cable TV.

Though he gave somewhat dire predications about movies, Burke knows where some entertainment stuff should be headed. When it comes to content, especially TV-distributed content, Comcast has a digital plan.

But replacing current theatrical revenues is another issue that still makes entertainment executives scratch their collective heads. What can really replace the high-flying DVD/home entertainment business of years ago? Few digital options out there seem to have grabbed consumers’ fancy.

We all know business transitions aren’t fun – especially when longtime business partners still hold a lot of cards. Talk to nervous TV station executives about network and Hollywood partners, and then talk to nervous movie exhibitors about Hollywood and independent filmmakers.

Universal Studios already tried “premium VOD” (video on demand) with “Tower Heist” back in October –an effort to shorten the premiere theatrical windows of big expensive movies while grabbing a premium price tag of $59.99.

It was probably too soon, and movie exhibitors rebelled big time. And Universal, perhaps sensing that this was a bridge too far, pulled back.

Now comes the cry, “The movie business is in decline.” It seems like a fair warning cry to exhibitors that conditions are tough and that content owners are restless and want big change.

But wait. There is another side of the equation here: quality.

Remember some time back, when Meyer said that the industry – including his own studios – made some bad movies (even though softened up his remarks afterward)? “We make a lot of shitty movies," Meyer was quoted as saying. "Every one of them breaks my heart.”

Between what Burke said, and Meyer’s cry about poor content, you have an intersection that is hard to cross.

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