Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts hailed NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke’s legacy at the Peacock and Comcast on Monday as Burke formally announced his retirement and plan to hand the leadership reins at NBCU to filmed entertainment chief Jeff Shell in January.
Word of Burke’s retirement plan surfaced late Thursday. Shell has long been seen as the likely candidate to replace Burke, who has been at the helm of NBCUniversal since Comcast finalized its purchase of a controlling stake in the company from General Electric in January 2011. Burke has been with Comcast since 1998.
Shell will assume the title CEO starting Jan. 1. Burke will shift to chairman of NBCUniversal and retire on Aug. 14 following NBCU’s coverage of the summer Olympics in Tokyo. After Burke’s retirement, Shell will report directly to Roberts.
“I cannot thank Steve enough for the incredible impact he has had on this entire company. I will miss Steve’s trusted partnership, and I know I speak for both myself and my late father Ralph when I say that we will be forever grateful to him for shaping first Comcast and then NBCUniversal into the great companies they are today,” Roberts said in a statement Monday. “When Comcast acquired NBCUniversal in 2011, I never imagined it would become the fastest growing media company. Steve’s leadership and the team that he built has had everything to do with this outstanding performance.”
On Burke’s watch, NBCUniversal’s businesses have grown dramatically after a period of being starved for investment under GE. NBCU’s adjusted earnings have spiked from $3.4 billion in 2011 to $8.6 billion in 2018. The NBC broadcast network has reclaimed its lost luster and Universal Pictures logged milestone years in 2015 and 2017 that crested the $5 billion global box office mark.
“It has been a privilege to work so closely with Brian for the last 22 years, and particularly to have had the opportunity to lead NBCUniversal for the last nine,” Burke said. “This is a very special company and I am proud of the people I have worked with and the things we have accomplished together. While this has been a dream job, it has always been my plan to hand off the baton at the right moment and move on to the next chapter of my life where I can pursue a different set of interests. It is great to know I am leaving the company in terrific hands with Jeff, who is the right leader to usher in the next phase of growth and success for NBCUniversal.”
Shell is also a Comcast veteran, having joined the company to oversee cable channels from Fox Cable Networks Group in 2004. News of his ascension was generally well received on the Universal lot last week.
“It is truly an honor to step into this role, and I am excited that Brian and the Comcast board are giving me the incredible opportunity to help steer the future of NBCUniversal,” Shell said. “I’m sincerely grateful to Steve, who has been an amazing boss and mentor for the last 15 years and leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of visionary leadership and success. I look forward to building on this strong track record and partnering with the many talented leaders across the company.”
Roberts praised Shell as an executive who brings a “stellar track record” from his past postings at NBCUniversal, which include running international operations out of London from 2011 to 2013 before segueing to running Universal Pictures. Shell’s success in managing the film studio in tandem with studio chairman Donna Langley was an important test, given that Shell came to the job with no experience in film.
“Jeff Shell is the ideal executive to take the helm at NBCUniversal,” Roberts said. “I have worked closely with Jeff for many years and he is an extraordinary leader who inspires loyalty, delivers strong results and cares deeply about our company, its employees and partners. I could not be more confident in his ability to lead NBCUniversal into the future.”
Shell takes the helm of the company at a challenging moment for the media business in general and NBCUniversal in particular. NBCUniversal is wading into the streaming wars with the launch of the Peacock streaming service, set for April. The radical shifts in the pay TV arena are forcing the largest media players to re-align some operations and shell out billions of dollars on new and vintage content to support streaming and direct to consumer initiatives.
NBCUniversal, like other media giants, has also been rocked by cultural changes around it and tough scrutiny of internal operations at NBC News and other units in the wake of the #MeToo movement. NBC News has come under extreme fire for its handling of workplace issues related to now-disgraced former “Today” anchor Matt Lauer. More recently, actor Gabrielle Union has accused NBC of tolerating discriminatory behavior on the set of its summer hit “America’s Got Talent.”
Shell will also pilot the company in what is sure to be a choppy economic climate in the coming years as traditional media giants adjust to new business models and the steady erosion of earnings from linear cable affiliate fees, which have powered most media giants for the past three decades.
Among the notable milestones Burke’s tenure at the top of NBCUniversal:
** The acquisition of DreamWorks Animation for $3.8 billion in 2015
** Setting a $7.75 billion in 2014 deal to lock up domestic Olympic rights through 2032
** NBC’s return to No. 1 in the adults 18-49 demo in the 2013-14 season, a spot it has maintained for six consecutive years
** Investment in Telemundo to allow the Spanish-language network to overtake the long-dominant Univision in key metrics
** Development of the “Symphony” promotional effort designed to focus the marketing resources of disparate NBCU units around a single company priority such as the launch of NBC’s “The Voice” in 2011.
** The opening of the Volcano Bay water park in Orlando, Fla., Harry Potter attractions in Los Angeles and Orlando and five new hotels
(Pictured: Steve Burke and Jeff Shell)