Plugging in at the top

Roberts rewards Burke with Comcast's No. 2 job

Comcast promoted Steve Burke to chief operating officer Tuesday in a mostly cosmetic move that formally recognizes the exec’s influential role as No. 2 to chairman-CEO Brian Roberts at the nation’s biggest cable company.

Burke, a highly regarded former Disney/ABC exec, had been slated to oversee a combined Comcast-Disney before the cabler’s merger plan crumbled this spring.

Burke was formerly president of Comcast Cable, a title he will retain, and one of four exec VPs of the parent company. The other three — treasurer/co-chief financial officer John Alchin, co-CFO Larry Smith and exec VP Larry Cohen, who heads government affairs — will continue to report to Roberts.

The one significant change is that Comcast’s programming investments division, headed by Amy Banse, and its content assets, will now report to Burke instead of to Roberts.

The move “publicly reflects that he’s the guy who gets everything done at the company. He’s the day-to-day operating guy,” said fund manager Harry DeMott of Gothic Capital Management.

Roberts, in a statement, credited Burke with a “fantastic job” integrating the Comcast and AT&T Broadband cable operations over the past year and a half. Wall Streeters and industry insiders agreed the challenge was massive given the size as well as the chronic underinvestment in the AT&T systems before Comcast bought them. The integration was also completed months ahead of schedule.

Burke joined Philadelphia-based Comcast in 1998. Before that, he was president of ABC Broadcasting, in charge of TV, radio and Buena Vista Television. He was the key driver in Comcast’s bid for Disney in February. Cabler pulled its offer several months later after meeting stiff resistance from Disney’s board and dismay from some of its own shareholders. At a meeting with reporters last week, Burke still spoke regretfully of the lost potential of combining the two companies.

A Comcast rep dismissed speculation that the new title was meant to pacify Burke and keep him on board after the Disney disappointment.

One Wall Streeter agreed. “If he gets a chance to run a much bigger company and is the clear No. 1, he’d consider it, no matter what his title is at Comcast,” he said.

“Obviously, his name gets mentioned now along with Mel (Karmazin’s) and (Jonathan) Dolgen for a variety of positions, if any come open,” he added.

DeMott and others don’t discount the possibility of Comcast making another run for Disney in the future. “The dissatisfaction with Eisner is no different than it was the day before they made the bid. The stock’s no different — it’s trending back to where it was,” while Comcast’s financial position is growing stronger, DeMott noted.

Also Tuesday, Burke announced a management revamp at Comcast Cable that gives additional oversight to Dave Watson, who was named exec VP for operations, and Mike Tallent, who was named exec VP for finance and administration.

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