NBCUniversal CEO Calls Presidential Debate "Nerve-Racking," Lauds Moderator Lester Holt

Steve Burke CES - H 2016
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Steve Burke CES - H 2016

Steve Burke also signals at the Royal Television Society Conference in London that the company may not be interested in buying ITV.

Steve Burke, CEO of Comcast's NBCUniversal, on Tuesday discussed the first presidential TV debate, Donald Trump's past working for NBC, the company's opportunity to grow its international business and his interest in possibly acquiring U.K. TV giant ITV.

In a keynote conversation with Tina Brown at the Royal Television Society Conference in London, which this year has the tagline "Full Stream Ahead: Commissioning, Producing and Distributing Content in an Age of On-Demand," he also discussed the partnership of content and the changing media landscape.

Burke said more than 100 million people likely caught the first head-to-head debate between U.S. presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. "We have set-top-box data. At least inside the Comcast footprint, over 35 percent of the homes were turned on to the debate, which would extrapolate to over 100 million viewers," he said.

Burke also acknowledged the debate caused him some concern. "It was nerve-racking for me, and I got a copy of the debate sent to me this morning 4 o'clock London time...because the anchor of the debate was Lester Holt, who is the anchor of NBC Nightly News," he said. "The environment is so tough right now for anybody moderating anything to try to make sure that it's a fair debate, we were very worried and concerned for Lester. He ended up doing a very good job."

Some viewers, including Hollywood folks, criticized Holt on social media during the debate, but Trump himself was quoted by CNNMoney as saying after the event, "I thought Lester did a great job."

The likely audience for the debate shows that "people will turn out for very large live events," even though it's more challenging to draw a big live crowd today, the NBCU CEO said, also pointing out that the Rio Olympics averaged 27.5 million live viewers.

Brown joked that some people blame NBC for Trump's prominence. The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, which Trump used to host, were on a the air a long time "before we showed up," Burke said about his team and NBCU owner Comcast. "At the time, he was an entertainer and very good at what he did in that realm. I think NBC News has done a very good job handling the election and trying to get the right issues out. But it's a very interesting time."

Discussing NBCU's U.K. business, which contributes about 20 percent of the company's international revenue, Burke said: "We have a huge investment profile in the United Kingdom.... This is a huge, huge market for us. We want to be the best place for talented people to bring their great ideas." That includes respecting creatives and marketing "the hell out of" projects.

He added: "My prediction is more and more of that will be international. NBCUniversal and Comcast, we are less international than [Fox], the Walt Disney Company or Time Warner, and I look at that as an opportunity."

Could that mean a bid for U.K. TV giant ITV, Brown asked? "No, nothing to say there," Burke answered. ITV does a lot of production, so wouldn't its business fit into NBCU? "Yes and no," he replied, emphasizing that NBCU was essentially a U.S. company. "We have a very healthy respect for how hard it is to program a [broadcast] network [back in the U.S. and more so abroad]...I think we would be more interested in distributing the product that we make and creatively making television shows and movies outside the United States."

With the Brexit-driven decline in the value of the British pound this year, analysts have wondered if an American company could make a bid for ITV. Adam Crozier, CEO of ITV, has long said he sees the company more as a consolidator rather than a takeover target.

Here's a look at some more highlights from Burke's appearance:

- Discussing the way Comcast and NBCU look for synergy and cross-promotion, Burke said he believes in letting executives run their businesses in a decentralized way, but the company also stands for something, and "we basically say you must cooperate when a movie like Secret Life of Pets comes out.... It is not optionable." He also said he tells executives to "think like an owner, not a renter," meaning a focus on long-term success and not on self-aggrandizing posturing. "We don't tolerate bickering and fighting and wasting a lot of time."

- How does he manage M&A? "The major growth engine has been acquisitions," Burke said. When there is a year to closing a deal, his team uses that time to make all plans to be able to hit the ground running once it gets completed. That can mean changing executives and strategies, but definitely not just sitting back and waiting, he said.

- "Brian Roberts and I had always believed that content and distribution work well together," Burke said, but only if you manage things well. He pointed to successes that Rupert Murdoch and John Malone have had over the years with that approach. "Our dream was getting big in distribution...and then getting bigger in content."

- Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri is "this generation's Walt Disney," Burke said. Comcast chairman and CEO Roberts also recently touted the executive and his success.

- Buying DreamWorks Animation was a great opportunity, Burke said. "We have had such a good experience in the animated film business." The deal allows the company to double its annual animated film output to four and add an animated TV business and consumer products business. Concluded Burke: "The animated film business is maybe the best part of the feature film business."

- In the old days, "the least objectionable" show on TV would be a success, the NBCU CEO said. "Today, the middle of the market is just gone." People will look for and find the big hit, "finding those things that have the potential to really break through."

- How are young viewers like his kids different in their viewing behavior? "They will never watch shows that they don't want to watch. They will never feel that they have to watch a show when it's on linear television. They have grown up with DVRs, and those changes are permanent. You can really draw a line. It's really right around the end of the millennial age cohort, right around 34- or 35-year-olds." Media companies must be Snapchat and Facebook and others where younger viewers spend more time.

- Digital is a key focus for NBCU, he said. The acquisitions of stakes in BuzzFeed and Vox Media continue to let NBCU learn new things. BuzzFeed, for example, ran the company's Rio Olympics Snapchat Discover channel, which Burke said some saw as "heresy." He said he tries to get on Instagram and Snapchat with his kids but admitted that this will "never be second nature like for them." How do young audiences feel about the Olympics? Burke said millennials love them, as do advertisers. "Television is still a very good business" overall, he said, and will be for a long time. But he said it was "unlikely" that the TV business would in the next 10-20 years grow as much as in the last 10-20 years.

- Asked about Comcast's recent deal to integrate Netflix into U.S. set-top boxes, Burke explained that many people in the U.S. subscribe to Netflix. "To a degree, those Netflix customers are being inconvenienced," he said, but the vast majority of them enjoy the cable channels they get. The integration allows for "a happier customer," he concluded.

Comcast first got a controlling stake in NBCU in early 2011 before in 2013 buying full control. It has since more than doubled the operating cash flow at NBCUniversal. Roberts recently said that the entertainment arm's performance across its businesses has been "beyond even my own highest expectations."

Burke also said Tuesday that there was more upside ahead, touting the NBC network, the success of the film unit  and the growth in theme parks. Among other successes, NBC just won the third U.S. TV season in a row in the 18-49 demographic, and Telemundo's ratings have been rising.