On Dec. 12, NBCUniversal executives and talent were gathered in the capacious Studio 9C at 30 Rock for the company’s annual holiday press party. Executives and talent including Jimmy Fallon and his interim showrunner Gavin Polone, Mark Lazarus, who runs East Coast content including news and sports and a bevy of Lazarus’ direct reports (NBC News and MSNBC chairman Andy Lack, NBC Sports president Pete Bevacqua) made small talk with reporters while munching on cheeseburger sliders and mini crab cakes.
An expanse of north-facing windows offered an eye-level view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a 60-year-old, 77-foot Norway spruce trucked in a month ago from upstate New York. It was amid this tableau that news of Jeff Shell’s impending ascension to CEO of NBCUniversal broke.
And, on Dec. 16, Comcast confirmed that he’ll take charge of NBCU beginning Jan. 20, while Steve Burke moves to chairman and then retires Aug. 14, after the Tokyo Olympics. “If you could create the perfect job for Jeff, this is it,” says an insider. “He loves current events and entertainment. He literally watches movies, news and sports every weekend.”
Shell, 54, has been a savvy operational steward of his growing NBCU portfolio as chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. Internally, Shell’s rise, which has been expected since at least a year ago when Burke, 61, expanded his responsibilities, was viewed as a positive, though some women at the organization complained that the promotion of a white man perpetuated the recalcitrant C-suite boys’ club.
Sources say that Shell, in preparation for his promotion, has been in close contact with New York- and Stamford-based Lazarus, 56. And when the news broke, Shell did reach out to Lack, who is set to exit after the 2020 presidential election, when NBC News president Noah Oppenheim is slated to take over.
At this point, it’s unclear how or if a spate of negative headlines related to Megyn Kelly’s aborted $69 million tenure, the ouster of Today host Matt Lauer and MSNBC’s Mark Halperin in the wake of sexual misconduct claims and NBC News’ handling of Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein could affect leadership at the news division, if at all. Many news insiders view those chapters, as demoralizing as they were, as closed.
And on a corporate level, the news division is highly successful. MSNBC has posted three consecutive years of record revenue and ratings and ended 2018 with 86 million U.S. subscribers, while NBC News flagship programs including Today and Nightly News are the top-rated programs among viewers coveted by advertisers. NBCUniversal’s top priority with respect to news is the launch in 2020 of an international news channel in conjunction with Europe’s Sky, to go head-to-head with CNN International.
While Shell is supportive of the liberal agenda at MSNBC — he hosted a fundraiser for former Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris in February — he’s expected to do some tweaking around the edges. “Some people at MSNBC should be thrilled because they’re not on board with the Noah regime,” says an insider.
Meanwhile, sports is expected to play a role in soon-to-launch streaming service Peacock; NBC Sports president Bevacqua recently told THR that the service will include Olympics content. The company will unveil further plans for Peacock during a Jan. 16 investor event in New York. Shell’s promotion will have little effect, if any, on Universal’s film division. Chairman Donna Langley is the sole executive with greenlight power.
“His No. 1 priority is to better align the NBC organization to aggressively transition to a direct-to-consumer world,” says Pivotal Research Group analyst Jeff Wlodarczak. Adds analyst Jimmy Schaeffler of The Carmel Group, “Comcast needs an NBCU leader with decades of future ahead, instead of just a few more single-digit years. Comcast gets those decades with Jeff Shell.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.