Steve Burke is expected to step down as CEO of NBCUniversal next year and is likely to hand the reins to Jeff Shell, who is now chairman of NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment, multiple sources tell Variety.
Burke’s NBCUniversal contract formally expires in August 2020, but sources say he could depart earlier in the year. Shell, who is now based in Los Angeles, will split his time between New York and the West Coast should he assume the CEO post, according to people familiar with his plans.
An NBCUniversal spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
In January, Burke enacted a dramatic shakeup of NBCUni leadership that placed Shell in a prime position to replace him, industry insiders noted at the time.
In the reorganization, Shell gained oversight of NBC Entertainment, Telemundo and NBCU’s international operations, in addition to overseeing the Universal Studios outfit. Shell’s colleague Mark Lazarus was also upped to chairman of NBCUniversal broadcast, cable, sports and news in January.
Lazarus had been viewed as another potential successor for Burke. However, as speculation about Burke’s future has increased internally over the past few weeks, insiders say they’re confident that Shell is the heir apparent.
Burke, who has elected to leave his NBCUniversal post, is working on formalizing his exit plans. No deals are yet in place for Burke or a successor, another insider added. There is speculation that Burke could move into a top role at Comcast or oversee Sky, the satellite TV giant Comcast acquired last year for $40 billion. He already serves as senior executive VP of Comcast in addition to leading NBCU.
The January restructuring set the stage for a CEO transition at NBCU as it streamlined the senior management of key divisions and minimized the number of direct reports into Burke. In addition to the portfolio bumps for Shell and Lazarus, Bonnie Hammer shifted from running NBCU’s entertainment cable networks to become chairman of direct-to-consumer and digital enterprises, where she steered the launch plans for Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming service set to debut in April. Hammer in October moved again to the role of NBCUniversal Content Studios chairman, overseeing all broadcast, cable and digital production for the company.
Donna Langley became the sole chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, adding global theatrical distribution and home entertainment to her portfolio. She reports to Shell.
Burke was named CEO in January 2011, when Comcast closed its initial acquisition of a majority stake in NBCUniversal from General Electric. Burke was previously chief operating officer of Comcast and before that, president of Comcast Cable. He has become a trusted lieutenant of Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts since he joined the company in 1998 from Disney to run Comcast’s cable division.
Burke has presided over an impressive revival of the NBC broadcast network and expansion of operations in all areas of the business, from film and TV to theme parks and international operations, most notably with Comcast’s pursuit of Sky as it battled Disney last year in the effort to acquire 21st Century Fox.
Shell is an industry veteran who has been seen as a successor candidate for Burke for some time. Early in his career he worked for Disney in strategic planning before moving to News Corp. He rose to president of Fox Cable Networks Group, overseeing all entertainment and sports channels, and then segued to become CEO of News Corp. owned Gemstar-TV Guide International. He joined Comcast in late 2004 to run several cable channels including E!, the Golf Channel and a collection of regional sports networks.
More recently, Shell has had a tour of NBCUniversal, a trajectory that helped focus attention on him as a candidate to replace Burke. He was dispatched to London to serve as head of all international operations for NBCUniversal shortly after Comcast acquired the company. In September 2013 Burke surprised Hollywood by tapping Shell to replace Adam Fogelson at the top of Universal Pictures and related units.
(Pictured: Steve Burke and Jeff Shell)