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After eight years running NBCUniversal and serving as executive vp of parent company Comcast, Steve Burke is preparing to step down when his contract expires at the end of August, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.
A spokesman for NBCUniversal declined comment. There has been speculation that Burke may take a fuller role at Berkshire Hathaway given his close ties to that company’s 89-year-old chairman and CEO, Warren Buffett. That relationship goes back decades. In 1986, Burke’s late father, Dan Burke, and business partner Tom Murphy pulled off the surprise purchase of ABC for $3.5 billion with Buffett’s backing. Burke sits on the Berkshire Hathaway board.
Burke, 61, will leave Comcast’s sprawling media unit at a pivotal time as the company launches its most aggressive foray into streaming in April with its ad-supported Peacock service. His August exit also will allow him to preside over the company’s key coverage of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which are set to run July 24-Aug. 9.
A former Disney executive who joined Comcast in 1998 and became a close confidant of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Burke has overseen NBCUniversal since Comcast agreed in 2009 that it would pay about $30 billion to buy the assets from GE, what was seen at the time as an absurd price. (The acquisition closed in January 2011.) During Burke’s tenure, NBCUniversal revenue has risen steadily to $35.8 billion in 2018, and the company has grown to 200,000 employees. Burke made $39.9 million in 2018, according to regulatory filings.
But some say NBCUniversal under Burke was too slow to react to the streaming wars once Netflix popularized the concept and cable subscribers — Comcast’s bread-and-butter business — began to decline due to cord-cutting. NBCU even lagged behind legacy media competitors Disney and WarnerMedia in announcing a pivot to a mass-market streaming service.
News of Burke’s departure likely will stoke already strong speculation among insiders about succession at the company. Most high-level Hollywood players expect the job to go to Jeff Shell, chairman of NBCU film and entertainment. The other internal contender for the job is Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCU Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News. Both Shell, 54, and Lazarus, 56, oversee broad portfolios following a reorganization announced in January.
Shell, who already ran Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, was given oversight of NBC Entertainment, Telemundo and NBCU’s international operations. Lazarus, who oversaw NBC’s sports and stations units, also was put in charge of the company’s cable networks and news operations, including NBC News and CNBC. That reorganization gave Burke fewer direct reports.
At an annual management committee meeting in March in Orlando, Florida, both Shell and Lazarus presented in the wake of their promotions. While a company source says several other executives gave talks and the event was “not a bake-off,” sources say Shell performed more smoothly on his feet than Lazarus — an important trait in the head of a media company.
Shell also is seen as a true son of Comcast, a family-run company based in Philadelphia. He started there in 2004 overseeing cable networks including E! and the Golf Channel as well as the company’s regional sports networks. Burke then dispatched him to London to learn the company’s international business. Burke later said the assignment wasn’t the first choice of Shell, a Los Angeles native, but it would “give him unique experience across the company, and it would make him a better executive.”
Hollywood was surprised in 2011 when Shell was promoted to run Universal despite a lack of film experience. “I was fully aware that he had never made a movie, or marketed a movie,” Burke told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “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.”
In the Time Warner era, Lazarus was president of Turner Sports and Turner’s entertainment-focused cable networks. He joined NBCU in 2011 as president of NBC Sports Cable Group and was later promoted to chairman of NBC Sports. Lazarus has built the company’s sports network and streaming service and has responsibility for the company’s critical relationships with the NFL and the International Olympic Committee. In 2016, he added to his purview NBCU’s TV stations as well as network operations and broadcast standards.
Lightshed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield credits Burke with doing “an incredible job” resuscitating NBC and Universal after the Comcast purchase. With “the entertainment business getting more difficult every day” amid the streaming wars, he says, “it wouldn’t shock me to see Burke take a victory lap and move on to the next great adventure.” (Burke, an avid rancher, owns a vast property in Montana.)
Given Shell’s broad familiarity with an array of NBCUniversal’s operations, Greenfield also believes he has the inside track to succeed Burke. “He understands the business,” the analyst says. “I’m a fan.”
Paul Bond contributed to this report.
This story appears in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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