Steve Burke has finally landed the job he has long sought: studio chief.
Comcast Corp. and General Electric made it official on Sunday that Burke, the longtime No. 2 exec to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, will take the reins of NBC Universal as CEO once Comcast’s $30 billion merger transaction with NBC Universal parent General Electric is completed. Sunday’s news about Burke was the second shoe to drop after Jeff Zucker surprised the biz Friday with the confirmation, as widely suspected, that he will step down as NBC U prexy and CEO once the deal is done.
Burke’s background as a top exec at Disney and ABC in the 1980s and ’90s, plus his deep familial roots (his father, Dan, was the right-hand exec to Tom Murphy at Capital Cities/ABC for decades) in the TV biz made him the natural choice for the NBC Universal CEO post.
In fact, Burke’s vision for diversifying Comcast’s operations with blue-chip TV and film assets is what spurred the cable giant’s pursuit of NBC U last year, as well as its unsuccessful bid to acquire Disney in 2004. Burke joined Comcast in 1998 from ABC, where he’d served as prexy of ABC Broadcasting following Disney’s 1996 acquistion of the Alphabet.
“Steve Burke is an experienced, talented and visionary leader with over 25 years in the media and entertainment industry,” Roberts said in announcing his appointment. “Steve is one of the most well-respectedexecutives in the industry, and I am confident that he will lead NBC U forward to a new era of growth.”
Added GE boss Jeff Immelt: “He has deep expertise in this industry and I am very confident that he will be a strong leader for NBC Universal.”
Burke, who will also continue in his role as Comcast’s chief operating officer, would not comment on the news of his appointment Sunday. Comcast and GE sought to quiet the rampant speculation about realignment of NBC U’s top execs under Burke with a terse statement Sunday that “no additional structural or personnel announcements until the deal closing process and timing is certain.”
But there’s no shutting down the rumor mill that only spun faster after Zucker’s Friday ayem announcement. The hottest topics include Burke’s courtship of former Showtime entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt to oversee programming, production, marketing and skedding for the mothership Peacock broadcast net. (The discussions between Burke and Greenblatt are in full swing, but informed sources say there’s no announcement imminent.)
Burke, who joined Comcast as COO from ABC in 1998, has been a steady presence at 30 Rock in recent months, and execs say he’s mentioned more than once that he’s a “day-one guy,” meaning that he wants to get moving on Comcast’s strategic vision for NBC U as soon as the ink dries on the final deal papers.
Michael Angelakis, Comcast’s chief financial officer, is also working at Burke’s side as they prep for the integration of Comcast’s entertainment assets with NBC U.
Insiders said Burke is focused on realigning NBC U’s business units to streamline some of Zucker’s reporting structures. It’s no secret that conversations are ongoing about the management of the cable group, the single-largest driver of NBC U profit.
The uncertainty of how that management overhaul will shake out under Burke has fueled all manner of speculation about the future for Jeff Gaspin, who oversees all entertainment cable and the NBC broadcast net; Bonnie Hammer, who oversees USA and Syfy and the cable production wing; and Lauren Zalaznick, steward of Bravo, Oxygen, iVillage and the Women@NBCU crossplatform ad sales initiative.
The expectation is that CNBC, whose prexy Mark Hoffman has reported directly to Zucker, and MSNBC, managed by NBC News prexy Steve Capus, who also reported to Zucker, will be rolled into an enlarged news division at the new-model NBC U. In the regulatory hazing that Comcast execs have endured during the approval process, Roberts and others have repeatedly emphasized that they will invest heavily to maintain NBC News’ stature and credibility as a journo org. Assembling a single unit, with a leader directly reporting to Burke, to oversee all news-related properties at NBC U would help underscore that commitment.
On the Comcast side, execs who are likely to factor into the overhauled NBC U equation include Jeff Shell, prexy of Comcast Programming Group, and Comcast Entertainment prexy Ted Harbert. Both Shell and Harbert have TV programming backgrounds. Harbert’s nearly 20 years at ABC make him a natural contender for a role in managing NBC.
The one area that may remain largely untouched in the near term is Universal Studios, led by prexy Ron Meyer, as Burke appears to be training most of his attention on solidifying the long-term management plan for the formidable cable group and shoring up the still-shaky fortunes of NBC.
Hollywood’s creative community is ready to welcome Burke with open arms, after years of often-testy relations with his predecessor.
“He’s a smart exec, and the broadcast business is in his DNA,” said WME TV topper Rick Rosen of Burke. “Everybody has great hopes for (NBC U’s) new owners. There’s a great legacy at NBC, and everybody wants to see it healthy again.”
Despite initial reports that the timing of Zucker’s resignation announcement came a surprise to Comcast, it seems to have been calculated. Because GE is about to go into a quiet period ahead of third- quarter earnings — it is scheduled to report on Oct. 15 — execs felt Zucker should get the news out now. Same for the announcement of Burke becoming CEO. Under a secondary bond offering Comcast is expected to file soon to help finance the acquisition of 51% of NBC U, Comcast would have been required to name the CEO of the new NBC U. Sunday’s announcement takes care of that disclosure.
But while Burke’s official coronation adds some clarity to the post-merger plan for NBC U, many more pieces still need to be sorted out. That is sure to foster a climate of unease at 30 Rock and in Burbank for the next few months.
“Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen right now is lying,” said one NBC U vet.
(Tom Lowry and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)