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What’s Next for NBCUniversal After Steve Burke Passes the Torch?

Jeff Shell Steve Burke Mark Lazarus
Shell: NBCUniversal; Burke: Lisa Berg/NBC; Lazarus: Heidi Gutman/NBC

Steve Burke arrived at Comcast in June 1998, just as the Philadelphia-based cable giant was signaling its intention to become a major player in entertainment.

When he steps down as CEO of NBCUniversal next year, he will leave the parent company — and his successor, NBCUniversal Filmed Entertainment chief Jeff Shell — with a prosperous movie studio, a revived broadcast network, an enlarged theme park division and a clutch of cable networks in the throes of transition.

Burke’s track record, from a financial and operational standpoint, has been stellar. But NBCUniversal of late has been battered by accusations that sexual misconduct and other forms of harassment have been allowed to persist in pockets of the company, including NBC News. Burke has faced criticism over what some say has been a failure to address systemic problems within the media company.

Still, there’s no question that NBCUniversal overall is in a far better place as a business than it was when Comcast acquired its majority stake from General Electric for about $30 billion in January 2011. (Comcast bought up the rest for $16.7 billion in early 2013.) Burke’s decision to shift gears after his current contract ends in August is indicative of the rare feat that he has achieved as a media CEO: the ability to plot his exit on his own terms.

It’s expected Burke will stay at the helm through NBCUniversal’s telecasts of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which are scheduled to run July 24-Aug. 9. Word of Burke’s departure spurred immediate speculation about his next move as an executive. A source close to the situation says Burke intends to trade board meetings for fishing and other outdoorsy pursuits on his sprawling property in Montana, at least for a little while.

Shell has long been seen as the heir apparent to Burke, in part because they are viewed as executives cut from the same cloth: low-key, approachable and business-minded, and deferential on creative and editorial matters to handpicked lieutenants at the studio and network arms.

In Hollywood, reaction to Shell’s likely ascension was positive, if not anticlimactic. The steppingstones were laid in January when Burke realigned NBCUniversal’s top management. The moves were designed to minimize his number of direct reports and divide much of the company between Shell and Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Broadcast, Cable, Sports and News, who is based in New York.

After the January restructuring, Shell was essentially “lifted out” of the day-to-day operations of Universal Pictures, according to a source, which allowed Donna Langley to become fully empowered as studio chair. Shell has made more trips than usual to the East Coast in recent months, an indication that he is immersing himself in the big picture for NBCU and Comcast.

Like Burke, Shell spent years at Comcast overseeing E! and other cable channels before segueing to NBCUniversal after the Comcast acquisition. It’s no secret that Shell, who had an 11-year tenure at News Corp. prior to joining Comcast in late 2004, has been courted for other top jobs in entertainment and media in recent years but was tipped about a year ago that he would be wise to stick around.

The bar is high for Shell, who will face different challenges than the rehabilitation effort that Burke’s team took on after taking the keys to NBCUniversal, which had been starved for investment by the regime at GE.

Burke took a gamble on the regional cable company’s desire to become a global media heavyweight when he left a top job at ABC to join Comcast as head of its cable division. That was a year nearly to the day after Comcast had received a $1 billion investment from Microsoft to help develop cutting-edge broadband service. It would be another six years before Comcast made its first stab at buying a studio with an unsolicited (and unsuccessful) bid for Disney in 2004.

Along the way, Burke and Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts came to confide in each other. The success that NBCU has enjoyed on Burke’s watch only made him more integral to the overall picture at Comcast.

As good managers, Burke and Roberts have clearly spent some time preparing for the first CEO transition of the Comcast era at NBCU. The truest test of the strength of the house that Burke rebuilt will be how well it performs after he’s no longer calling the shots at 30 Rock.