NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke to step down in 2020

December 13, 2019 0 By JohnValbyNation

NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke is planning to step down next year, accelerating an internal race to succeed him, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.

Burke, 61, has managed NBCUniversal since Philadelphia cable giant Comcast Corp. purchased it in January 2011, shaping the once-tattered media company into a juggernaut. He has privately expressed an interest in leaving the company when his deal expires in August, according to the knowledgeable people.

NBCUniversal representatives declined to comment Thursday. Burke did not respond to a request for comment.

His departure would come at a pivotal time for the company. NBCUniversal has two signature events coming next year: the launch of Peacock, a planned streaming service, and the broadcast of the 2020 Summer Olympics. The games in Tokyo are expected to be highly profitable for NBCUniversal; already the company has received more than $1 billion in advertising commitments.

The leading candidate to replace Burke is Jeff Shell, 54, who has run the Los Angeles-based film studio Universal Pictures since 2013.

Shell is a veteran television executive who has long been one of Burke’s most trusted lieutenants. The L.A. native became chairman of the film studio in 2013, and at the time was considered an unlikely pick because he had no experience in the movie business. Shell managed NBCUniversal’s international operations from 2011 to 2013, but happily returned to his home in L.A. because Comcast wanted a corporate insider who was a Hollywood outsider to lead its West Coast charge.

“I was fully aware that he had never made a movie, or marketed a movie,” Burke said of Shell in 2015 interview with The Times. “But Jeff is a very able executive. And the bigger the job in these companies, the more important it becomes that you can work well with the team. And Jeff has a particular style, and a humility about him.”

Shell grew into the role, overseeing the film studio in its most profitable years. Early on, he hauled a stately library-style wooden desk once used by Universal’s legendary mogul Lew Wasserman out of storage to serve as his own.

Earlier this year, Shell took on an expanded portfolio, which includes oversight of the NBC broadcast network, the company’s international operations and its Spanish-language network Telemundo. The move in January telegraphed Burke’s succession planning.

Shell began his career at the Salomon Bros. investment bank, then joined Walt Disney Co. in strategic planning. He worked a variety of jobs for 11 years at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. but gambled on Comcast in 2004, in part because Burke was already there, helping run the business. Shell once told The Times he was impressed with Comcast’s ambitions and swagger.

Insiders said Burke has not discussed his planned exit with staff or publicly identified a successor.

People close to Burke said the CEO is not interested in jumping to another media company.

The son of the legendary co-leader of Capital Cities/ABC, Burke also got his start at Disney and launched the Disney Stores retail unit before taking charge of the Burbank company’s ABC television unit. But he decamped for Comcast in 1998 and has been a key ally of Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts for 21 years.

In the past, Burke has said that he had little interest in competing against Comcast.

Instead, Burke might spend more time on his Montana ranch or pursue something in the financial world. He has made a fortune at Comcast (his annual compensation typically tops $30 million) and has the chops. Burke has been a board member on one of the world’s largest banks, JP Morgan Chase, since 2004.

Leaving in 2020 would mark a logical inflection point as the entire industry is in transition. NBCUniversal is well along in the construction of a sprawling theme park in China — Universal Studios Beijing — and its opening is slated for early 2021. It will be the fifth branded Universal Studios park.

But the next CEO of NBCUniversal will face existential challenges as the cable TV channel business, which has been key to NBCUniversal’s profits, shrinks with more consumers cutting the pay-TV cord. Broadcast television, including NBC, has witnessed a sharp drop in primetime ratings. And the movie business faces uncertainty as consumers spend more time watching streaming services in the home.

And it’s unclear whether the Peacock streaming serivce will resonate with consumers in an already crowded market with well-financed rivals, including Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max.

Peacock itself has gone through a recent shake-up. Bonnie Hammer, who was head of the company’s direct-to-consumer business, was moved over to lead the company’s TV studios in October. Comcast cable executive Matt Strauss was named chairman of Peacock.

In addition to Shell, the other internal candidate to replace Burke is Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News. Lazarus, the head of NBC Sports since 2011, in January took over most of NBCUniversal’s East Coast-based content businesses, including the high-profile NBC News, which encompasses MSNBC and CNBC, and cable channels such as USA, Syfy and E!

Variety first reported on Burke’s expected exit.

Times staff writers Ryan Faughnder and Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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