Roberts, Burke take control

Hollywood gets a new seat of power in Philly

NBC Universal staff, meet your new owners.

If regulators greenlight the acquisition of a 51% stake in NBC Uni by Comcast Corp., CEO Jeff Zucker and the rest of his team will report to a new majority owner that is the country’s largest cable operator and its top executives who are known as family men who are competitive and focus on operating excellence and results.

NBC Uni’s Hollywood operations are used to having supervisors based on the East Coast as the team currently reports to Zucker at 30 Rock in midtown Manhattan and will continue to do so as the newly formed entertainment joint venture remains headquartered in New York.

However, the ultimate power base of NBC Uni's bosses is shifting. Industrial conglomerate GE's headquarters is in Fairfield, Conn. Now, a cable giant based in Philadelphia will be in charge once the transaction closes.

Its two top executives are considered two of the most influential businessmen in Philly, have a reputation for being efficient operators and are known to prefer spending time with their families rather than stars and starlets at glitzy affairs. So, few observers expect them to run around Hollywood regularly, unless they have a business objective to pursue.

Soft-spoken Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and his long-time right-hand man and COO Steve Burke, a former Disney executive to whom NBC Uni’s leadership will report, are both Ivy-league educated baby boomers who grew up with fathers who worked in the business. Both tend to shy away from the spotlight.

Burke will be in charge of overseeing NBC Uni and finding ways for its content operations to work more closely with Comcast’s cable systems. He had said earlier this year said that combining content and distribution power can create “a lot of value.”

In a statement on Thursday, Burke lauded the "excellent track records" of both Comcast and NBC Uni of integrating businesses and developing popular programming. "We are confident that we'll be even stronger together and look forward to working with Jeff Zucker and the NBCU team to deliver the best consumer experience," he added.

Roberts has long groomed Burke as his content guru. The son of Daniel Burke, the longtime second-in-command at what would become Capital Cities/ABC, Burke spent years at Disney, where he put the Disney stores on the map, ran local ABC TV and radio stations and served as president of Euro Disney. That is why he was also supposed to oversee the Walt Disney Co., when Comcast tried to acquire it in 2004, but failed.

Since joining Comcast, Burke has overseen the firm’s cable systems operations where he has expanded VOD offers to make the services stickier.

With such smoothly executed acquisitions as AT&T Broadband and parts of Adelphia, as well as Fandango, Roberts and Burke have in recent years further cemented Comcast as the biggest cable player in the U.S. and pushed it into new digital fields. That has increased Comcast’s power in the media and entertainment industry to new heights.

The firm had nearly 23.8 million video subscribers as of Sept. 30 and more than 46.8 million combined video, broadband and telephony customers. That is up from the 1,200 cable customers counted by the company co-founded by Roberts’s father Ralph in 1963. (For Comcast’s history, click here.)

Wall Street and industry folks laud Roberts, who worked his way up at his father’s firm, and Burke for vision, innovation and running businesses with an eye on financial and operating targets.

"They are good businessmen and smart operators," cable industry veteran and consultant Steve Effros recently said of Comcast’s leadership.

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson in a recent report expressed hope that the Comcast guys would put an end to the conflict and disarray that different parts of the media and entertainment industry are in, which, he argued, has allowed new competitors, from Redbox to Apple, to eat established players' lunch.

"Someone needs to man up. For goodness sake, let's hope that someone is Brian Roberts,” Nathanson said. The Comcast-NBC Uni deal "could begin a new, better chapter for media economics," he added.

Roberts himself said early Thursday that Comcast is "absolutely committed to investing in NBCU and ensuring that it is a vibrant, financially strong company able to thrive in a rapidly evolving marketplace by delivering innovative programming."

For more on the incentives that brought the deal together, and its power players, click here.