NBCUniversal Chief Steve Burke on Looming WGA Walkout: ‘Strikes Aren’t Good for Anybody’

Stephen B. Burke NBCU
Courtesy of NBC

Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, told Wall Street analysts that he’s “optimistic” that a potential Hollywood writers’ strike will be averted and that the sides will be able to work out an agreement in the next few days.

“Strikes aren’t good for anybody,” he said on Comcast’s first quarter earnings call. “I’m hopeful we’re going to get it done, and we’re coming down to the deadline.”

The Writers Guild of America’s contract with producers is set to expire at midnight PT on May 1, and the guild has made preparations for members to hit the picket line.

A walkout by writers threatens to disrupt production schedules for NBCU and other media companies. But in the near term, the Peacock is riding high: In Q1, NBCU’s film division boosted revenue 43% to $2 billion with the addition of DreamWorks Animation and strong box office performance of “Get Out,” “Fifty Shades Darker,” “Split” and “Sing.”

Universal’s film slate also is strong for Q2, Burke said. But even backing out the film results, the rest of NBCU grew revenue 13% in the first quarter. “It’s every part of the company hitting on all cylinders,” Burke told analysts, adding that affiliate fee revenue rose 9% in Q1.

NBCU is heading into the upfront season with a strong primetime advantage over rivals, according to Burke. NBC is No. 1 “by more than we have ever been going back I think to the early 2000s,” he said. He added that MSNBC is beating CNN in primetime ratings on most nights.

And next year, Burke noted, NBC has broadcast rights to the Super Bowl and the 2018 Winter Olympics, and Telemundo has rights for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Overall, Comcast’s Q1 results comfortably topped Wall Street expectations, with chairman and CEO Brian Roberts calling the quarter the company’s best start in five years. Total revenue of $20.46 billion (up 8.9%) was fueled by strong performance NBCU’s film studio, cable and theme park divisions. Comcast posted earnings per share of 53 cents.

Also on the call, Roberts said Comcast Cable next month will launch xFi, which he described as a new, cloud-based home networking solution that will let customers control their home network and the devices connected to it.

“We think this will be a game-changer for Wi-Fi,” he said. Comcast had solid gains in broadband in the first quarter, adding 397,000 residential and 32,000 business high-speed internet customers to end the period with 25.13 million total.

On video, Comcast netted 32,000 new residential video subs in Q1, to stand at 21.52 million at the end of March. CFO Michael Cavanagh said 52% of those (about 11.2 million) now have the next-generation X1 service compared with 35% a year ago. Comcast expects X1 adoption to be in the low 60s by end of 2017.

About Comcast Cable’s forthcoming launch of the Xfinity Mobile service powered by Verizon’s network, Roberts said it positions the cable operator to reinforce its multi-product bundle strategy. According to the company, 71% of Comcast residential customers subscribe to at least two services.

“We’ve done a very good job of making sure we have [the Xfinity Mobile] offering in our bundle,” he said. “It’s going to be a fabulous value for our customers.”