Comcast's Smit steps down as cable division CEO, replaced by No. 2 Watson

The head of Comcast Corp.'s cable division, Neil Smit, will relinquish the post on April 1 and will be replaced by longtime cable division executive Dave Watson.

A former Navy Seal, Smit, 60, cited health reasons from a "previous career" and the desire to spend more time with his family. He was compensated $51 million over the last two years, according to Comcast's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The cable division, based in Philadelphia, includes the pay-TV, high-speed internet, phone, and the fast-growing business services operations — with tens of millions of so-called customer relationships.

Among other projects for Watson will be maintaining momentum in Comcast's pay-TV business, which added subscribers in 2016 for the first time in about a decade, and improving customer satisfaction. Comcast also faces a slew of streaming services that offer alternatives to consumers dissatisfied with the legacy cable-channel bundle.

Watson takes the position at a time that industry observers believe that Comcast may be allowed by federal regulators to make big acquisitions under the Trump administration. The Obama administration axed the company's mega deal with Time Warner Cable in 2015. Watson was not available for an interview, Comcast said.

Smit, an angular and athletic man who was uncomfortable speaking in public but well-liked inside Comcast, will help with the transition to Watson. Then he will serve as vice chairman of Comcast, a position previously held by former chief financial officer Michael Angelakis, and consult on technology. 

Angelakis now runs a $4 billion Comcast-backed investment fund, with offices in Bryn Mawr and New York.

Watson, 57, who joined Comcast as part of a cellular acquisition in the 1990s, assumes his new post as Comcast prepares to launch a wireless phone product this year, adding to its bundle of services.

Comcast officials said that Watson's experience with wireless had minimal impact on his elevation from the No. 2 executive in the cable division to No. 1 as chief executive officer and president.

Watson, who had been previously passed over to head the 91,000-employee cable division for Smit, said in a statement that "it's an honor to take the reins from Neil. I can't thank him enough for his partnership during the last seven years. Neil has taught us all lessons in leadership, team building, focus, and execution." 

Continuing to report to Watson will be the cable business' three regional divisions — in the West, Central/South and Northeast — and the product-development team headed by Tony Werner. That team will be based in the new high-rise under construction next to the Comcast Center in Center City.

Watson, who lives in Radnor with his wife, Ellen, and has two grown children, will report to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. "Dave knows the business and has a track record of delivering results," Roberts said in a statement.

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