×

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.

More Biz

  • Frontrunners Emerge As BBC's Tony Hall

    Frontrunners Emerge as BBC Boss Tony Hall Set to Leave Broadcasting Behind

    As the U.K. industry reacts to news of Tony Hall’s intention to depart the BBC this July, top-level executives including Charlotte Moore and Tim Davie as well as external contenders such as Channel 4’s Alex Mahon are beginning to emerge. Variety understands that Lord Hall, who has headed the BBC for seven years as director [...]

  • Recording Academy President/CEO Deborah Dugan participates

    Executive Assistant Preparing Lawsuit Against Ousted Grammy Chief

    In the latest twist in the increasingly bitter exit of Deborah Dugan from the Recording Academy after just five months, the ousted president/CEO is about to face a lawsuit from her former assistant, Claudine Little, who has retained former Harvey Weinstein/ Charlie Walk attorney Patty Glaser to represent her, two sources tell Variety. The news was [...]

  • Two Rivers Media Buys Out Parent

    Two Rivers Media Buys Out Parent Kew Media Group's Stake In Business

    Two Rivers Media has bought out parent group Kew Media Group’s minority stake in the business. Formed by former STV Productions head Alan Clements in January 2019, the production outfit behind Channel 5’s recent “Susan Hill’s Ghost Story” launched with the backing of Kew, Noble Grossart Investments and Channel 4’s Indie Growth Fund. Noble Grossart [...]

  • Grammy Awards 60th Annual Grammy Awards,

    Recording Academy Paid Millions Annually to Outside Law Firms

    Among the concerns listed in a memo sent to the Recording Academy’s head of HR by president/CEO Deborah Dugan before she was placed on administrative leave Thursday was an item about the organization’s “exorbitant and unnecessary” legal fees to outside law firms, according to sources familiar with the document. According to the most recent 990 [...]

  • Chuck D of Public EnemyGods of

    Public Enemy’s Chuck D Slams Grammys Over Deborah Dugan Ouster

    Chuck D, frontman of Public Enemy — who are receiving the Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Grammys next week — posted a long statement on Instagram criticizing the Recording Academy over its sudden ousting of new president/CEO Deborah Dugan yesterday. Dugan, who had been in the job only five months, was placed on administrative leave after [...]

  • Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons

    Spotify in Talks to Acquire Bill Simmons' The Ringer: Report

    Spotify is in early talks to acquire The Ringer, the digital content and podcast network launched by ESPN alum Bill Simmons in 2016, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. A representative for Spotify declined to comment on the report. Reps for Ringer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Spotify’s [...]

  • Deborah Dugan arrives for the 20th

    Deborah Dugan's Recording Academy Ouster Follows Multiple Tussles With Board

    “Change is afoot,” Deborah Dugan said more than once during interviews with Variety in the weeks before her shocking removal from her post as president/CEO of the Recording Academy after just five months on the job. During those conversations, Dugan spoke of changes she planned to make in the Academy’s staffing organization, its Board of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content