Smit to become president of cable operations

The chief executive of Charter Communications, who guided the cable company through bankruptcy, is joining larger rival Comcast Corp. as president of its cable operations.

Neil Smit will take over part of the duties held by Steve Burke, Comcast’s chief operating officer, Comcast announced Friday. Burke will relinquish his role as president of Comcast Cable but stay on as the corporate COO.

The move will give Burke more breathing room as he gears up to run NBC Universal. Comcast agreed in December to acquire a 51% stake in the entertainment unit from General Electric Co. The deal is under regulatory review.

Burke will have a lot on his hands. NBC Universal has had its share of struggles, most recently with the late night show fiasco that will lead to the $45 million departure of Conan O’Brien as the short-lived host of NBC’s “Tonight” show.

Burke, a former ABC Broadcasting executive, will be responsible for improving performance at units of NBC Universal and dealing with the fallout from O’Brien leaving.

Comcast began searching for a new cable operations president last fall, when it was contemplating the purchase of NBC Universal.

Smit is leaving Charter after four years at the nation’s fourth largest cable operator and his departure comes only months after the company exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Nov. 30. Charter, controlled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was felled by a heavy debt burden piled on by acquisitions that led to about a decade of losses.

The bankruptcy reorganization erased $8 billion out of $21 billion of debt but turned over substantially all ownership to bondholders. Allen’s stake fell to 2% but he controls 35% of the votes.

Michael Lovett, Charter’s COO, will step in temporarily as CEO while the St. Louis cable company searches for a permanent replacement.

Smit’s resignation is effective on Feb. 28. He starts at Comcast in March. Smit will be overseeing much larger cable operations — Comcast has 24 million customers compared with 5 million at Charter.

Before joining Charter, Smit was president of Time Warner’s America Online Access Business. He also was chief operating officer at Mapquest.

Shares of Comcast, based in Philadelphia, rose 23 cents to $16.23 in morning trading Friday.

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