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Behind NBCU’s Dramatic Week: Steve Burke’s Drive For Cash

Media analysis: Conglom still needs sprucing up if it is to win more revenue from sponsors and distributors

In the last scenes of the classic film “The Godfather,” a young Michael Corleone settles all family business by pushing out ineffective operators and eliminating stumbling blocks to future growth. Oh, yeah, he has some people killed, too. If you do away with the mobster’s bloody tactics, would it be unfair to liken NBCU topper Steve Burke to this fictional, um, entrepreneur?

To be sure, Burke hasn’t ordered one of his senior operatives to plug Moe Greene in the eye. But he has dispatched top-level executives like Jeff Shell, Bonnie Hammer, and Deborah Turness to set things right at operations ranging from Universal Studios to NBCU’s cable operations and “Today” – all in a matter of days. On Friday, he hijacked a senior member of the Univision operating team, proving that sometimes, when a rival like Univision spends a few years taking out ads disparaging the performance of your flagship broadcast network, it’s better to sit quiet and take your revenge at a later time.

Burke has reason to act decisively. At an investor conference sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch earlier this week, he painted a picture of underperformance. The NBC broadcast network takes in $500 million to $1 billion less than rivals CBS, Fox and ABC, he told the assemblage. And with the bulk of distribution agreements with cable and satellite operators for NBCU’s networks coming up for negotiation over the next three years, he sees a chance to get more money for cable mainstays like USA and E!, but also the Peacock, which again lags behind its peers.

To do so, however, he’s got to get the place in working order. And after seeing ratings hiccups earlier this year at USA and other cablers and having to figure out succession plans for Jay Leno and Ann Curry in quick order, Burke and his team may have been a little distracted.

No longer. In just one week, Burke has;

* set Comcast veteran Jeff Shell over the worldwide studio operations of Universal, pushing out veteran Adam Fogelson with little if any advance warning

* seen cable-entertainment chief Bonnie Hammer kill the Style network, made redundant by ownership of Bravo, Oxygen and E!, and reverse course on the demise of G4, which was supposed to disappear when the new Esquire cable net launches Sept. 23. Hammer also let go Oxygen President Jason Klarman and gave expanded duties to Bravo’s Frances Berwick, a broader programming job to USA co-president Jeff Wachtel and sole USA responsibility to Chris McCumber.

* witnessed new NBC News President Turness bring Carson Daly from late night to front and center on the second-place ayem talker “Today,” where he is to interview celebrities and drum up social-media buzz. While Matt Lauer and crew still hold sway at the program, the addition of “Voice” host Daly is sure to change the look and feel of the program in meaningful fashion.

*lured veteran Univision programmer Cesar Conde to NBCU’s executive suite, where he is to work on a variety of business initiatives and also help supervise international operations.

Burke is less of a talker than a doer. Unlike his predecessor Jeff Zucker, Burke makes few grand pronouncements in the media and lets business performance do the talking. And he has more to do.

The longer NBCU’s assets are allowed to draw a paltrier dollar for their wares, the harder it will be for the company to catch up with others. Never has the media landscape been more competitive. If viewers can’t get the broad crowd-pleasers they seek on NBC – “Sunday Night Football” and “The Voice” aside – well, they can turn to Netflix just as easily as they can CBS or AMC. NBCU’s networks need to get the best stuff on the air as soon as possible – and they need to monetize it almost as quickly.

The company has taken some quick steps since Comcast acquired control of it in 2011, and it has some bright spots ahead. The appeal of “Sunday Night Football” is hard to ignore. Another NBCU Olympics broadcast is almost upon us. Ad buyers have increased the amount of ad dollars they commit in advance to the NBC fall schedule for two consecutive upfronts.

But it isn’t enough. In August, Comcast extended Burke’s contract to August of 2018. By that time, NBCU’s ability to command higher subscriber fees from distributors and secure additional advertising cash will be well-known. In the interim, Burke, who has spent some time training for and running in marathons, may be in for the sprint of his career: Getting things up to speed in what may well be the nation’s biggest collection of media assets  in advance of some critical discussions with sponsors and affiliates about revenue.

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