Comcast’s Burke to be chief of NBC Universal

Comcast Corp.'s second-in-command, Steve Burke, will become chief executive of NBC Universal when the merger of the entertainment assets of Comcast and General Electric Co. is complete, the two companies announced Sunday.

Burke, 52, will succeed Jeff Zucker, 45, who said Friday that he would step down when Philadelphia-based Comcast assumes control of NBC Universal, which is expected to happen late this year or early 2011. The two companies are awaiting the federal government’s approval of their $30-billion transaction.

Comcast is to control 51% of NBC Universal; GE is to retain 49%.

The naming of Burke as CEO was expected. Zucker — who since 2007 has been running the sprawling media empire that owns such assets as the NBC network, the Universal movie studio and theme parks, the Spanish-language Telemundo network and cable TV channels USA, Bravo, Syfy, MSNBC and CNBC — will stay on for several months.

Burke, a longtime Walt Disney Co. executive who has been a senior executive at Comcast since 1998, will face substantial challenges. He must navigate a suddenly bulked-up media company through a digital revolution, which is threatening to undermine the long-established economics of the media business. Burke will have to determine whether Universal movies should be released earlier on DVD, video on demand and online services, which could hurt movie theater owners. He also must decide whether NBC will make episodes of its popular TV shows available for free on the website Hulu, which is partly owned by NBC Universal.

But first he must assemble his own team without alienating key NBC lieutenants or his future partners within GE during the transition. Although Comcast is allowed to plan for the integration of the two companies, federal rules prohibit Comcast executives from officially calling the shots until they control the venture.

During the last nine months, Burke has been meeting with senior executives and working to create a more streamlined management structure for NBC Universal — an endeavor that has put several Comcast and NBC executives in competition for the same jobs. Burke has not yet discussed with key NBC executives what their futures might be, but he has said that he will have his team assembled and ready to go as soon as the deal closes.

Burke prides himself on being a straight shooter who dislikes the drama of office politics or underlings who seek the media spotlight. He will have to manage a different culture at NBC Universal: The company has long operated in the spotlight and has a string of able executives, many with big egos.

Burke was not available to be interviewed Sunday, a Comcast spokeswoman said. After the merger, he will continue as chief operating officer of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, in addition to being the CEO of NBC Universal. The media company will remain headquartered in New York.

“Steve is one of the most well-respected executives in the industry, and I am confident that he will lead NBCU forward to a new era of growth,” Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said in a statement.

People who know Burke say that he has been training for his new role for much of his life.

Burke comes from a prominent business family. His father, Dan Burke, was one of the two architects of the Capital Cities television station group that gobbled up ABC and later sold the company to Disney. His uncle, James Burke, was chairman of Johnson & Johnson during the 1982 Tylenol scare and the campaign to regain the public’s confidence in the pain medicine.

Burke earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School in the same class as GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt.