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With Time Warner deal, Comcast chief now on top

Brian Roberts has spent at least $91 billion acquiring companies over a dozen years.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

Brian Roberts has spent at least $91 billion acquiring companies over a dozen years.

NEW YORK — Brian Roberts is putting an end to John Malone’s cable cowboy era.

The Comcast chief executive, who secured a deal to buy Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion in stock, has long operated in the shadow of Malone, the Liberty Media Corp. chairman and billionaire investor who helped establish the US cable industry and has long dominated it with a forceful personality.

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No longer. Roberts has spent at least $91 billion acquiring companies over a dozen years, including the $52 billion purchase of AT&T’s cable business in 2002. If his purchase of Time Warner Cable is approved, it would bring his acquisition tally to at least $136 billion.

By thwarting Malone’s attempts to get his hands on Time Warner Cable and with NBCUniversal already in his pocket, Roberts also has emerged with the power to reshape the cable- media landscape. On a conference call Friday, the Comcast chief characterized the Time Warner Cable deal as a crucial step toward modernizing cable, which has struggled to match the viewing experience from upstarts like Netflix and Hulu.

‘‘Look at where the world is, and the competition you see is coming from national companies and many cases international companies,’’ Roberts said. ‘‘There’s an opportunity to invent new products and services.’’

Roberts has already made a strong start with Comcast’s X1 TV interface. It mimics and in some cases surpasses what Apple and Roku offer, including streaming of TV and films as well as cloud storage. Comcast also started selling downloadable movies and TV shows much the way Apple does.

Roberts “saw the major technology developments of the industry well ahead of everyone else and has positioned his company brilliantly to take advantage,’’ said Craig Moffett of the research firm MoffettNathanson.

Roberts, 54, has always wanted to be seen as a major media mogul in the mold of Malone or Viacom Inc. chairman Sumner Redstone, say people familiar with his thinking who asked not to be named because they considered the matter confidential.

Roberts’s ambitions partly explain why he put the Comcast name on the GE building after acquiring NBCUniversal from General Electric Co.

Nor has he shied away from tussling with Malone, 72. In the mid-1990s, the two engaged in a power struggle over Tele- Communications Inc. In a bid to outfox Malone, Roberts worked with Bill Gates, then Microsoft’s CEO, to buy up a bloc of supervoting shares.

While the tactic failed, Malone considered their move duplicitous, according to Mark Robichaux’s book ‘‘Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business.’’

‘‘They screwed me,’’ he said of both Roberts and Gates.

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