In 1986, Capital Cities — a drab TV station owner with a No. 2 exec named Dan Burke — acquired ABC. Now Comcast — perceived as a drab cable system owner, whose No. 2 exec is Burke’s son, Steve — has agreed to assume control of NBC Universal.Whether Comcast follows the CapCities playbook given all that’s happened during the intervening years will partly depend, to borrow oft-quoted military parlance, on conditions on the ground. Yet assuming the well-regarded Burke and his boss, Brian Roberts, learned anything from that history, the NBC U deal might leave the acquired company with less to fear, and more potential upside, than many have thus far suggested.Not surprisingly, the takeovers by these Eastern interlopers were met with suspicion, then and now, in the insular halls of Hollywood and Manhattan. Nor does it help that both Comcast and Cap Cities were smaller than their merger partners. (In another quirky parallel, CapCities’ flagship station was WPVI in Philadelphia, where Comcast is based.)Already, there’s been mumbling about all the content-related matters in which Comcast qualifies as a relative novice — areas like the movie business, network programming and theme parks (never mind Burke’s experience in that last area during a 12-year stint at Disney/ABC). As with CapCities, the popular trope is that these are business/distribution guys, and thus strangers to creative decision-making.Certainly, the CapCities gang, led by Thomas Murphy and the elder Burke, weren’t a particularly exciting bunch.Murphy once described his view of “winning” in the TV business as making more money than the other guys. At the time, Fortune magazine described the duo as “churchgoing Irish Catholic family men who deplore the libertine ways familiar in the entertainment business.”Their buttoned-down image notwithstanding, Capital Cities wasn’t above spending money, or taking chances, when they deemed it necessary. And after CapCities initiated cost-cutting measures upon taking over, managers were given plenty of room to operate their divisions.
“They said, ‘All you guys in charge of businesses, go run your business,'” says Ted Harbert, who has a unique perspective on the two deals, inasmuch as he’s now prez-CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group and was then an exec at ABC Entertainment.
Nor did Murphy and Burke’s conservative profile prevent ABC from pressing ahead with risky or edgy programming, either in terms of cost (see the $100-million-plus miniseries “War and Remembrance”) or content (such as “NYPD Blue,” which pushed the boundaries of broadcast content into unprecedented territory). Along with dramas like “thirtysomething” and “Twin Peaks” and a string of popular family sitcoms such as “Roseanne,” “Home Improvement” and “Grace Under Fire,” the network vaulted into first place in key demographics through most of the early 1990s.
Murphy and Burke also groomed a young exec named Robert Iger by moving him from sports to overseeing ABC Entertainment before placing him in charge of the broadcast group. Selling ABC to Disney in 1995 deprived Iger the CEO title, though he went on to claim it at the combined entity.
Comcast, of course, made its own thwarted bid for Disney five years ago, which if successful would have represented a more direct homecoming for Burke — who, according to the Los Angeles Times, in his old job once occupied his dad’s former office.
How much of the CapCities approach Burke internalized by lineage, savvy or sheer osmosis remains to be seen from NBC’s perspective, but that’s hardly the extent of his resume. As Harbert noted, Burke also worked for Michael Eisner, who came from a creative background and ran Disney with a markedly different style.
In a CNBC interview, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves referred to Roberts and Burke as “phenomenal operators,” which mirrors the way competitors generally described the CapCities hierarchy in their heyday.
Obviously, it’s a much different world now, and Comcast is seeking to inherit a more complex company. While NBC U has several healthy assets, ABC was doubtless in considerably better shape when ABC patriarch Leonard Goldenson passed the baton than NBC is today.
That said, perhaps the best prognosis for NBC whenever the “under new management” banner finally flies would be if the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.