Continuing a string of high-level executive defections from Walt Disney Co., Steve Burke, president of Disney's ABC Broadcasting, is leaving to become president of cable operations at Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp.
Comcast is expected to become the nation's third-largest cable operator with its recent investment in Jones Intercable Inc.
Comcast President Brian L. Roberts called Burke an ideal addition to Comcast as it enters new areas such as high-definition TV and the delivery of Internet and telephone service. Burke will also become a senior vice president of Comcast, which also owns a cellular telephone business, the QVC cable channel and the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers sports teams. Microsoft Corp. made a $1-billion investment in Comcast last year.
The departure of Burke, 39, comes as a surprise to many analysts and industry observers, who had the 12-year Disney veteran pegged for a top job at the company. Burke had often been mentioned as a replacement for ABC President Robert Iger. Burke's father, Daniel Burke, was the former chief of Capital Cities/ABC, before it was bought by Disney.
"Clearly, there would appear to be a revolving door at Disney," said Christopher Dixon, an entertainment analyst at PaineWebber. Disney "continues to be an extraordinary training ground for management, but . . . if you're a talented young manager and an opportunity like this presents itself, it's something you're going to consider."
Before becoming president of ABC's TV and radio broadcast group, Burke helped to develop and found the Disney Stores, which now number more than 680 in 11 countries. In 1992, Burke was sent to Euro Disney to help turn around the troubled theme park outside Paris.
Roberts said these experiences worked heavily in Burke's favor: He "has been trained at the best company in the world as far as service and brands."
In an interview from his ABC office in New York, Burke stressed that he was not leaving out of any dissatisfaction with Disney. "I think Michael Eisner is the best entertainment executive there ever was. . . . I'm leaving because I have a great place to go," said Burke, who added that Comcast's entrepreneurial character appealed to him.
"I love to grow businesses," he said, "and I've certainly had that opportunity within Disney as well. The Disney Stores now have $1.5 billion in sales."
ABC department heads were informed of Burke's departure Tuesday by a memo from Iger. In it, Iger praised Burke for being "very helpful in the transition following our merger," and wished Burke well in his desire to be part of a "smaller, entrepreneurial operation."