Liberty Global CEO Fries Downplays Apple TV Threat

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Liberty Global ( LTBTYA) CEO Mike Fries doesn't expect Apple ( AAPL) to build a TV, amid speculation that Tim Cook and Co. are working on a strategy to upend the cable TV industry.

At the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference on Tuesday, Fries, who heads one of the top cable providers in Europe, downplayed the threat Apple TV poses to traditional cable bundles and said conversations he had with Cook don't indicate that Apple will manufacture an actual TV.

"I don't think they're going to build a TV. They want to be in the interface business. They want essentially to get in between cable operators and customers," Fries said on Tuesday.

"That's a tricky proposition when you think about the economics of that and who wins and who loses and how you share revenue. So I don't anticipate any bold moves in our space from them but -- so they're not a big threat," he added.

Fries wasn't alone among cable and media executives at the Goldman Sachs conference to downplay the impact of upstarts such as Apple to the cable TV business.

Time Warner Cable ( TWC) Chief Financial Officer Arthur Minson defended the value proposition of cable TV packages, even as media analysts and investors brace for a so-called mobile virtual network operator (MNVO) such as Apple or Netflix ( NFLX) that could dis-aggregate traditional TV bundles.

Disney ( DIS) CEO Bob Iger, meanwhile, said he doesn't expect Netflix to corner the streaming media business, after posting some of the industry's fastest subscriber growth in 2013.

Iger expects competitors to continue to emerge given diminishing technological barriers to entry in the industry. "I think it is going to be really hard for them to corner the marketplace," said Iger of Netflix's standing in the industry. "This is far from over," Iger added.

The Disney CEO, nevertheless, said Netflix plays an increasingly important role in the media industry given its rising status as a buyer of big ticket broadcast, cable and movie content. Just under a year ago, Netflix signed a content relationship with Disney in which the streaming service will have exclusive rights to Disney's movie releases.

While it isn't surprising to see traditional cable operators downplay the prospects of MNVOs and for studios such as Disney to defend a system in which a rising number of operators bid up the cost of broadcast, cable, movie and sports programming, Tuesday's comments add new insight into the fast-changing media industry.

Google ( GOOG) continues to be a wild card in the debate as to whether MNVOs could supplant traditional video packages offered by cable providers.

The Internet search giant is currently in the process of rolling out a fiber network in selected cities. If Google were to decide on building out a nationwide fiber network or one that could serve most major cities in the U.S. -- a so-called virtual multiple systems operator (MSO) -- it could give credence to theories that media industry status quo is poised for change.

A virtual MSO would be helpful to a player like Apple if it was looking to create an over-the-top alternative to cable TV. Currently, over-the-top media relies on the broadband networks of traditional cable operators, meaning they hold the keys to distribution. A credible third party like Google, however, could strip much of the power that cable operators currently have.

TiVo ( TIVO) CEO Tom Rogers called that scenario "a long way off" on Tuesday.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York.

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