Analytical, decisive, loyal, fair, empowering. Those are just a few of the choice words industry insiders who have worked with incoming NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell — set to succeed current chief exec Steve Burke, as Variety exclusively reported — use to describe the longtime media exec.
On Universal’s North Hollywood lot, many insiders who work alongside Shell were relieved that the cat was finally out of the bag. In the wake of January’s corporate restructuring, succession lines were clearly drawn for those inside the company, one top Universal executive said on the condition of anonymity, despite NBCUniversal sports, news, and cable head Mark Lazarus having been positioned as a potential challenger. The Comcast-owned company had at the beginning of the year expanded Shell’s role to include NBC Entertainment, NBCUniversal’s international division and Telemundo, elevating him to his current role as chairman of NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment.
Multiple insiders characterize Shell as a well-liked exec (and huge L.A. sports fan) whose overall goodwill was compounded this year by the man hours he’s put in to understand the larger scope of the corporate business. He has traveled quite a bit since the bolstering of his title in January at Burke’s behest, trying to educate himself on arenas outside of filmed entertainment and corporate strategy.
Shell is a show-business veteran. Prior to his leap into his current post, he occupied the role of chairman of Universal Film and Entertainment Group, which includes Universal Pictures, for about five and a half years. It’s a tenure that includes the theatrical premieres of titles from the “Jurassic World” and “Fast & Furious” franchises plus the oversight of Universal’s consumer products, games, live entertainment and digital properties such as movie ticket site Fandango. His past professional lives include time as president of Comcast Programming Group, CEO of Gemstar TV Guide International and president of Fox Cable Networks Group.
According to several television executives who have worked with Shell over the past decade, he seems like an ideal choice for the top spot at NBCU. His former colleagues praised his uncanny ability to both grasp difficult concepts while presenting those ideas to others in a simple, effective way. They also described him as a person who doesn’t seek to hog all the credit for accomplishments for himself. Rather, Shell is characterized as someone who remains humble, despite his stature, and capable of making others feel like part of a team.
Given the current fast-moving state of the media environment, flexibility and a willingness to pivot and adapt are key. Shell, says one exec who worked with him years ago, is not afraid to try things that might fail, describing him as a leader able to course-correct swiftly.
Shell’s ascent to the top of Universal’s filmed entertainment group in 2013 was preceded by an extensive career in television, and he told Variety in a cover story interview four years ago that the movie business was “the hardest business [he’s] ever worked in.” Alongside current group chairman Donna Langley and NBCUNiversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, the three execs propelled Universal in 2015 to its best year in its 103-year existence.
In the confines of the C-suite, Shell is a straight-shooter, on a level that still surprises his longtime colleague Langley.
“I marvel at just how brutally honest he is. … I’m always sort of walking on eggshells, and he’s taught me you can be blunt,” said Langley back then about Shell.
In terms of the specific flavor Shell will bring as a CEO, insiders said he is not the type to be caught lounging on David Geffen’s yacht Rising Sun or brokering acquisitions on the back nine of the Riviera Country Club in the Palisades. Shell is closer to the archetype of an American corporate honcho, buttoned up with less Hollywood pizazz, but has has distinguished himself through philanthropy.
On Shell’s mantle is a recognition of the Fulfillment Fund, which works to help Los Angeles students afford the opportunity to attend college. In 2016, he was presented with the group’s Tom Sherak Award and hailed for his commitment to improving educational opportunities for area students. Among his work with nonprofits, Shell has spent time serving as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, now known as the U.S. Agency for Global Media, between 2013 and 2017.