NBCUniversal is set to unveil a major shakeup of its top executive ranks as CEO Steve Burke reorganizes his direct reports and the company prepares for the launch of a streaming service next year, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Mark Lazarus and Jeff Shell will take on expanded roles overseeing NBCUniversal’s vast television operations. Longtime cable chief Bonnie Hammer will shift to oversee NBCU’s streaming plans, which will be somewhat different from those burnished by many of the company’s competitors. The offering will be free to NBCU pay-cable subscribers in the U.S. and will be supported by advertising.
Among the many changes coming to NBCU:
The moves will reduce the number of people reporting directly to the NBCU CEO, and spotlight the growing urgency big media companies are placing on getting into direct-to-consumer streaming. Digital-video companies like Netflix and Amazon have become increasingly formidable competitors. And while NBCU parent Comcast is a charter stakeholder in Hulu, rival Walt Disney Co. is expected to gain majority control of that outlet when it completes its purchase of a large chunk of 21st Century Fox this year.
Meanwhile, both Disney and AT&T’s Warner Media are slated to launch video-streaming services of their own in 2019. CBS has ad-supported streaming for sports and news and a subscription streaming service, CBS All Access. And Fox News launched its Fox Nation subscription outlet late last year.
Hammer, a TV executive whose days in the medium tie back to the classic PBS series “Zoom,” will potentially play a critical role in NBCU’s future. Plans call for the new streaming service to be made available to subscribers to both Comcast, NBCU’s parent company, as well as Sky PLC, the European satellite broadcaster that Comcast acquired control in last year. In all, NBCU will make the service available to 52 million subscribers. The service is expected to feature original content and programming from outside partners as well as material from the company’s archives. An ad-free version will also be available for a fee, and, non-pay TV customers can purchase a subscription separately.
Elevation of Lazarus and Shell could position either as a possible successor to Burke. Burke’s current employment contract expires in 2020. There is no hint that the 60-year-old executive is preparing to leave in the near future.
The two executives stand to gain more responsibility as Comcast has pushed to expand NBCUniversal. The parent company made a serious bid last year for cable-and-studio assets owned by 21st Century Fox that eventually ended up being sold to Walt Disney. That transaction is expected to close soon. Despite Disney prevailing in that effort, Comcast’s acquisition of Sky will give it more exposure to international markets, more heft in negotiations for sports rights and a new international partner for NBC News.
NBCU has, like many other media companies, grappled with the migration of viewers from linear TV-watching to on-demand viewing. The company has over the years culled its cable portfolio, shuttering cable networks like Esquire and Cloo that it believes cannot perform up to a certain level. And it has invested in digital-content companies like the aforementioned outlets in an effort to gain a toehold in a world where younger consumers are flocking to upstart content brands.
In a recent call with investors, Burke indicated satisfaction with the outlook for NBCU’s business, but also suggested executives were monitoring trends. “Our television business continues to be very, very strong,” he said. “And I think as the world pivots here toward more streaming, we want to make sure that we respect and nurture and continue to invest and continue to outperform on the television side wherever the world goes in terms of new technologies.”
Both Shell and Lazarus have extensive experience overseeing big media operations.
Shell joined Comcast first as president of Comcast’s programming group, which at the time meant managing the company’s interests and investments in national and regional cable outlets. Prior to that, he was CEO of Gemstar-TV Guide International and president of Fox’s entertainment-focused cable operations when that company was part of News Corp.
Lazarus, meanwhile, has served stints as president of Turner Sports when it was part of Time Warner, and president of Turner’s entertainment-focused cable networks. He first joined NBCU as president of NBC Sports Cable Group, and was then named chairman of NBC Sports in May of 2011. He is the ultimate manager of NBCU’s relationships with the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee, two programming ties critical to the company’s business. In 2016, he was given oversight of the owned-and-operated stations as well as network operations and broadcast standards. His growing responsibilities prompted NBC Sports to instill a new president, Pete Bevaqua, at the unit – the first time that role has been filled since Comcast reorganized the unit after acquiring control of NBCUniversal.
(Above, pictured: Mark Lazarus, Jeff Shell and Bonnie Hammer)
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